The in vivo removal of three different O-alkylated bases from DNA was measured in Escherichia coli. Using monoclonal antibodies specific for O6-methylguanine, O6-ethylguanine and O4-ethylthymine we have monitored the removal of these lesions from six different strains to assess the relative contributions of the adaptive response and of nucleotide excision repair. During the first hour after DNA alkylation, O6-methylguanine, O6-ethylguanine and O4-ethylthymine lesions were repaired almost exclusively by nucleotide excision, except when the adaptive response was being constitutively expressed. In wild-type E. coli the adaptive response began to contribute to O6-methylguanine repair about one hour after alkylation, the time required for the full induction of the ada DNA methyltransferase. In contrast, the adaptive response did not play such a large role in the repair of O6-ethylguanine and O4-ethylthymine in wild-type E. coli, presumably because DNA ethylation damage is a poor inducer of the adaptive response; possible reasons for this poor induction are discussed. The repair of all three O-alkylated lesions was virtually absent in ada- uvr- bacteria suggesting that no alternative pathway is available for their repair, at least during the first two hours after alkylation. When the repair of O-alkylated bases was compromised by an ada- or by a uvr- mutation, the bacteria became more sensitive to alkylation induced killing and mutation.