Fipronil, an N-phenylpyrazole with a trifluoromethylsulfinyl substituent, initiated the second generation of insecticides acting at the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor to block the chloride channel. The first generation includes the polychlorocycloalkanes alpha-endosulfan and lindane. In this study, we examine the mechanisms for selective toxicity of the sulfoxide fipronil and its sulfone metabolite and desulfinyl photoproduct relative to their target site interactions in vitro and ex vivo and the importance in fipronil action of biooxidation to the sulfone. Differences in GABA receptor sensitivity, assayed by displacement of 4'-ethynyl-4-n-[2, 3-3H2]propylbicycloorthobenzoate ([3H]EBOB) from the noncompetitive blocker site, appear to be a major factor in fipronil being much more toxic to the insects (housefly and fruit fly) than to the vertebrates (humans, dogs, mice, chickens, quail, and salmon) examined; in insects, the IC50s range from 3 to 12 nM for fipronil and its sulfone and desulfinyl derivatives, while in vertebrates, the IC50 average values are 1103, 175, and 129 nM for fipronil, fipronil sulfone, and desulfinyl fipronil, respectively. The insect relative to the vertebrate specificity decreases in the following order: fipronil > lindane > desulfinyl fipronil > fipronil sulfone > alpha-endosulfan. Ex vivo inhibition of [3H]EBOB binding in mouse brain is similar for fipronil and its sulfone and desulfinyl derivatives at the LD50 dose, but surprisingly, at higher doses fipronil can be lethal without detectably blocking the [3H]EBOB site. The P450 inhibitor piperonyl butoxide, acting in houseflies, increases the metabolic stability and effectiveness of fipronil and the sulfone but not those of the desulfinyl compound, and in mice it completely blocks the sulfoxide to sulfone conversion without altering the poisoning. Thus, the selective toxicity of fipronil and fipronil-derived residues is due in part to the higher potency of the parent compound at the insect versus the mammalian GABA receptor but is also dependent on the relative rates of conversion to the more persistent and less selective sulfone metabolite and desulfinyl photoproduct.