The purpose of this study was to investigate and compare the effects of paclitaxel and its water-soluble conjugates (sodium-pentetic acid-paclitaxel; polyethylene glycol-paclitaxel, and poly[L-glutamic acid]-paclitaxel) on chromosome morphology and induction of apoptosis in a metastatic murine melanoma cell line (K1735 clone X-21). For this, murine melanoma cells were treated continuously for 72 h with three concentrations (1.2 microM, 2.4 microM, and 4.8 microM) of each of paclitaxel, and conjugates. Another set of cells were pulse-treated at 2.4 microM, 4.8 microM and 9.6 microM concentrations of each of these drugs for 4 h and the recovered cells were examined after 72 h. Control cultures received only the solvents (dimethyl sulfoxide or water). Our results showed a significant increase in the frequencies of telomeric associations, chromosome aberrations, polyploidization, distorted and disintegrated chromosome morphology, and reduced telomeric signal intensity by fluorescence in situ hybridization, in treated cultures as compared to the controls. However, we detected no change in telomerase activity. In addition, the majority of interphase nuclei in treated cells showed apoptotic bodies, with chromatin condensation. These in vitro results suggest that cell death induced by paclitaxel and its water-soluble conjugates is due to the loss of telomeric repeats, as shown by reduced signal flourescence and increased telomeric associations.