DNA strand breaks induced by Neocarzinostatin in Escherichia coli cells have been characterized. Radioactively labeled phage lambda DNA was introduced into lysogenic host bacteria allowing the phage DNA to circularize into superhelical molecules. After drug treatment DNA single- and double-strand breaks were measured independently after neutral sucrose gradient sedimentation. The presence of alkali-labile lesions was measured in parallel in alkaline sucrose gradients. The cell envelope provided an efficient protection towards the drug, since no strand breaks were detected unless the cells were made permeable with toluene or with hypotonic Tris buffer. In permeable cells, no double strand breaks could be detected, even at high NCS concentration (100 micrograms/ml). Induction of single-strand breaks leveled off after 15 min at 20 degrees C in the presence of 2 mM mercaptoethanol. Exposure to 0.3N NaOH doubled the number of strand breaks. No enzymatic repair of the breaks could be observed.