The capacity of blood (trypomastigote) forms of Trypanosoma cruzi to infect mouse peritoneal macrophages or rat heart myoblasts in vitro was inhibited by treatment of the trypomastigotes with DL-alpha-difluoromethylarginine (F2Me Arg), monofluoromethylagmatine, or (E)-alpha-monofluoromethyl-3-4-dehydroarginine--all irreversible inhibitors of arginine decarboxylase. Similar results were obtained when F2MeArg-treated parasites were incubated with rat heart myoblasts. The inhibitory effects were characterized by marked reductions in both the proportion of infected cells and the number of parasites per 100 host cells. The concentrations of the arginine decarboxylase inhibitors that affected infectivity had no detectable effect on either the concentration or motility of the parasite and, therefore, could not have affected the collision frequency. F2MeArg appeared to inhibit the ability of T. cruzi to penetrate the host cells since the drug had no significant effect on the extent of parasite binding to the surface of the host cells. The inhibitory effect of F2MeArg was markedly reduced or abrogated in the presence of either agmatine or putrescine, as would have been expected if F2MeArg acted by inhibiting arginine decarboxylase. Addition of F2MeArg to macrophage or myoblast cultures immediately after infection or at a time when virtually all of the intracellular parasites had transformed into the multiplicative amastigote form, resulted in a markedly reduced parasite growth rate. This effect was also prevented by exogenous agmatine. These results indicate the importance of polyamines and polyamine biosynthesis in the following two important functions of T. cruzi: invasion of host cells and intracellular multiplication. Furthermore, concentrations of the inhibitors tested that affected the parasite did not alter the viability of the host cells, the cellular density of the cultures, or the ability of uninfected myoblasts to grow. Thus, arginine decarboxylase inhibitors may have a potential application in chemotherapy against T. cruzi infection.