2,7-Dichlorodihydrofluorescein (DCDHF), commonly known as dichlorofluorescin, and dihydrorhodamine 123 (DHR) are often used to detect the production of reactive nitrogen and oxygen species in cells via oxidation to their respective fluorescent products. To determine which biological oxidants might be involved, DCDHF and DHR were exposed to a number of oxidants in vitro to determine which are capable of oxidizing these compounds. Formation of dichlorofluorescein (DCF) and rhodamine is typically monitored by measuring their intrinsic fluorescence, however, absorbance can also be utilized (epsilon500 nm = 59,500 and 78,800 M(-1) cm(-1) for DCF and rhodamine, respectively). Peroxynitrite (ONOO-) readily oxidized both compounds with an efficiency equal to 38% of added ONOO- for DCDHF and 44% for DHR. Addition of nitric oxide (NO) to a superoxide-generating system resulted in DCDHF and DHR oxidation which was inhibitable by superoxide dismutase (SOD). SIN-1-mediated oxidation of DCDHF and DHR was also SOD-inhibitable, suggesting that peroxynitrite is the primary oxidant formed from SIN-1 decomposition. Aerobic addition of NO resulted in DCDHF oxidation in a manner consistent with nitrogen dioxide (.NO2) formation. NO did not oxidize DHR and actually inhibited UV-light-induced DHR oxidation. Simultaneous addition of NO and ONOO- resulted in an apparent inhibition of indicator oxidation; however, subsequent addition of ONOO- alone 20 s later produced a higher than average amount of oxidized indicator. Addition of indicator after NO + ONOO- followed by subsequent ONOO- addition gave similar results, suggesting the formation of a relatively stable, oxidant-activated NO/ONOO- adduct. At pH 7.4, hypochlorous acid was 66% efficient at oxidizing DHR but only 9% with DCDHF. Neither H2O2 (1 mM) nor superoxide flux alone produced significant indicator oxidation. Oxidation of DCDHF by horseradish peroxidase (HRP) plus H2O2 was considerably less efficient than oxidation of DHR. At 20-fold higher concentrations, HRP alone oxidized DHR but the rate was much lower than when H2O2 was present. Catalase largely inhibited HRP-mediated oxidation of DHR but not DCDHF, suggesting a direct effect of the peroxidase on DCDHF. These results reveal that peroxynitrite, hypochlorous acid, and H2O2 plus peroxidase all oxidize DCDHF and DHR to varying degrees but that neither superoxide, H2O2 alone, nor physiological levels of nitric oxide are capable of indicator oxidation. Thus, DCDHF or DHR oxidation in any given cell type may involve more than one oxidant. In cell systems where nitric oxide production occurs, oxidation of either DCDHF or DHR is likely to include a peroxynitrite component. Identification of relevant oxidants will best be achieved with a combined experimental approach which exploits the differential reactivities of DCDHF and DHR and the judicious use of inhibitors and oxidant scavengers.