We have reported previously (C. N. Robson et al., Cancer Res., 46: 6290-6294, 1986) the isolation of a Chinese hamster ovary cell line, designated CHO-Chlr, that exhibits resistance to bifunctional nitrogen mustards while maintaining the normal parental level of sensitivity to several other alkylating agents. We have compared the rate of formation and repair of DNA cross-links induced by mechlorethamine in CHO-Chlr and parental CHO-K1 cells, both in intact cells and in isolated nuclei. Equimolar doses of mechlorethamine induce significantly fewer DNA interstrand cross-links in CHO-Chlr cells than in CHO-K1 cells, but levels of DNA-protein adducts are approximately equivalent in the two lines. There is a correlation between the relative resistance of CHO-Chlr cells to mechlorethamine (34-fold) and the amount of drug required to induce approximately equal numbers of DNA interstrand cross-links in the two cell lines. This strongly implicates DNA-DNA adducts in the cytotoxic action of mechlorethamine. DNA cross-linking studies on isolated nuclei reveal only minor differences between the two lines even with identical drug treatments. The rate of cross-link repair is comparable in the two cell lines. These results, taken together with our earlier observation that the rate of drug accumulation is identical in these two lines, suggest that enhanced cytoplasmic drug detoxification is the underlying resistance mechanism in CHO-Chlr cells. We have measured cellular glutathione S-transferase activity, using both the general substrate 1-chloro-2,4-dinitrobenzene, and substrates with some specificity for the different classes of transferase isoenzymes. Total enzyme activity (as measured with 1-chloro-2,4-dinitrobenzene) is elevated 3-fold in the resistant cells. A 2- and 5-fold increase, respectively, in activity against ethacrynic acid and cumene hydroperoxide is detectable in CHO-Chlr cells. This elevation in catalytic activity in the resistant cells is reflected in higher levels of both the Yf- and Ya-type transferase subunits.