Abstract Plasmid PBR322 DNA has been exposed to hydroxyl free radicals generated from an ascorbate/Fe system. Hydroxyl free radical scavengers as well as the iron chelator desferroxamine and catalase inhibit the DNA nicking which occurs, but superoxide dismutase had no effect. The DNA nicking was temperature dependent, occuring more rapidly at higher temperatures. The rate of DNA nicking was accelerated by the addition of hydrogen peroxide. There was an early lag phase in DNA nicking, even though the rate of hydroxyl free radical generation, as assessed by salicylate hydroxylation, showed no lag phase. It is considered that the early hydroxyl free radical damage to DNA may be biologically very important in mutagenic and carcinogenic processes.