Nitric oxide (NO.)-induced toxicity was investigated in two different cell lines, Chinese hamster ovary (CHO-AA8) and human lymphoblastoid (TK6), over a range of NO. doses (0-9 mM) delivered for an exposure of 2 h. To determine both short-term and delayed effects leading to death, a range of assays was employed to decipher the major mechanisms of cytotoxicity. Examples of damage parameters measured in this study include inhibition of DNA synthesis, damage to mitochondria, loss of cell membrane integrity, apoptosis, changes in cell cycle distribution, and the occurrence of DNA strand breaks. Our results indicate that NO.-induced toxicity is an extremely complex process involving multiple pathways generally leading to apoptotic cell death. Results consistently demonstrate that TK6 cells are much more susceptible to NO.-induced toxicity than CHO-AA8 cells. This difference in sensitivity could be seen for all types of cellular damage examined. The earliest observable effect of NO. exposure is inhibition of DNA synthesis which is not the result of inhibition of ribonucleotide reductase but may be the result of DNA damage leading ultimately to cell cycle arrest.