Three benzenoid ansamycin antibiotics (herbimycin, macbecin, and geldanamycin) were found to reduce the intracellular phosphorylation of p60src at a permissive temperature (33 degrees C) in a rat kidney cell line infected with a temperature-sensitive mutant of Rous sarcoma virus. This effect was accompanied by morphological changes from the transformed to the normal phenotype. The filamentous staining pattern of actin fibers was observed in the cells treated with these antibiotics at 33 degrees C. Removal of the antibiotics allowed the cells to revert to the transformed morphology. Ansamitocin, another benzenoid ansamycin, and naphthalenoid ansamycins such as streptovaricin and rifamycins did not show this effect. Pulse-labeling of the antibiotic-treated cultures with 32Pi showed a marked reduction of 32P radioactivity incorporated into p60src. A parallel experiment with [35S]methionine showed that synthesis of p60src was slightly inhibited. The immune complex prepared by mixing the herbimycin-treated cell extracts with antibody against p60src was inactive in vitro in phosphorylating the complex itself. On the contrary, the immune complex derived from untreated cells was active in vitro even in the presence of the antibiotics. These results suggest that benzoquinonoid ansamycins have no direct effect on src kinase but destroy its intracellular environment, resulting in an irreversible alteration of p60src and loss of catalytic activity.