The inhibition of mitochondrial succinate cytochrome c reductase by nordihydroguaiaretic acid (NDGA) was measured in vitro under aerobic and hypoxic conditions. The photodynamic effect of NDGA on EMT6 mouse mammary carcinoma cells was also investigated in vitro under aerobic and hypoxic conditions. NDGA strongly inhibited succinate cytochrome c reductase, which contains the mitochondrial electron transport Complexes II and III. By comparing the I50 values of aerobic and hypoxic assays, NDGA inhibition was found to be oxygen-independent. This finding suggests that oxygen is not involved in the inhibitory effect of mitochondrial respiration by NDGA. Similarly, our data demonstrate that NDGA-induced cytotoxicity towards EMT6 tumor cells is neither light-dependent nor oxygen-dependent. A dose-dependent loss of viability of EMT6 cell was observed although the toxicity of NDGA towards EMT6 cells was not strong, with an LC50 in the 200 microM range. NDGA caused a depletion of mitochondrial sulfhydryl groups. Sulfhydryl compounds, GSH and cysteine, prevented the inhibition of succinoxidase activity by NDGA. This suggests that NDGA exerts its biological effects by the depletion of sulfhydryl groups in key biochemical systems related to mitochondrial function.