Abstract The increase in sister-chromatid exchanges induced by 5 chemicals, with different DNA damaging and carcinogenic activities, was studied in short-term foetal-mouse cultures. A significant increase in SCE was induced by N-methyl- N′-nitro- N-nitrosoguanidine, N-diazoacetylglycine-amide, azaserine and methotrexate. k-Strophantin, on the contrary, was totally inactive. On a molar basis, MNNG was the most active chemical followed by MTX, AZS and DGA, in that order. At equitoxic concentrations (D 37), the order of SCE-inducing abilities was MNNG, DGA, AZS and MTX. Compared with previous data, at equitoxic concentrations, the most DNA-damaging agents were also the most effective in inducing SCE. The SCE increase seems to correlate not with unspecific cytotoxicity but more with DNA damage or other damage at the genome level. MTX, a non-mutagen, which induced SCE only at toxic levels, could be considered a false positive because this positivity may reflect an enhancement of incorporation of 5-BrdUrd into DNA. The positive results obtained with AZS suggest a sufficient sensitivity of the method for detecting relatively weak carcinogens.