The involvement of the proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) in the process of DNA repair induced by alkylating agents or by oxidative damage was investigated in human quiescent fibroblasts by immunofluorescence and flow cytometry. Transition from soluble to the DNA-bound form of PCNA, was taken as the parameter to determine its involvement in repair DNA synthesis. Treatment with the alkylating agents methylmethane sulfonate and N-methyl-N'-nitro-N-nitrosoguanidine resulted in the rapid and dose-dependent increase in the nuclear binding of PCNA. Similar results were obtained with compounds such as hydrogen peroxide or tert-butyl hydroperoxide, which are known to induce oxidative DNA damage. Tert-butyl hydroperoxide may also generate malondialdehyde through a reaction of lipid peroxidation. This mutagenic and carcinogenic product has been previously shown to form adducts with DNA. Therefore, the possibility that tert-butyl hydroperoxide could induce DNA damage through this pathway was investigated by incubating cells directly in the presence of malondialdehyde. Such treatment resulted in an increase in immunofluorescence associated with nuclear-bound PCNA. The ability of oxidative and alkylating agents to induce the nuclear binding of PCNA was also assessed in proliferating cells. In these conditions, treatment with hydrogen peroxide or methylmethane sulfonate, resulted in an increase in nuclear-bound PCNA in the G1 and in the G2 + M compartments, but not in S phase. At longer times after treatment, PCNA immunostaining was reduced to basal levels, while an increase in nuclear binding of p21(waf1/cip1) protein was found in concomitance with cell-cycle arrest. These results indicate that agents inducing DNA base alterations in vivo, promote the nuclear binding of PCNA. These lines of evidence support the role of a PCNA-dependent reaction in the base excision repair system.