The cytotoxicity of cysteine S-conjugates was investigated in freshly isolated rat renal proximal tubule cells. The study was designed to determine the contribution of the thiols and of the acylating intermediates formed by cysteine conjugate beta-lyase to the initiation of cytotoxicity. Cell viability was determined by trypan blue exclusion and by lactate dehydrogenase leakage. The S-conjugates S-(1,2,2-trichlorovinyl)-L-cysteine, S-(1,2,3,3,3-pentachloro-prop-1-enyl)-L-cysteine and S-(1,2,3,4,4-pentachlorobuta-1,3-dienyl)-L-cysteine, at a concentration of 0.2 mM, reduced cell viability compared to controls from 85% to less than 50% after 3 h. The alpha-chlorinated enethiols formed from these S-conjugates are transformed to acylating intermediates. The S-conjugate S-(2-chlorovinyl)-L-cysteine forms an enethiol, which cannot transform to an acylating intermediate and did not reduce cell viability at 0.2 mM; at 1 mM, it resulted in a very slight reduction of cell viability after 3 h. S-(pentachlorophenyl)-L-cysteine and S-benzyl-L-cysteine, which form stable thiols after metabolism by beta-lyase, were not cytotoxic at a concentration of 1 mM. The direct acting S-(2-chloroethyl)-L-cysteine (0.2 mM) reduced cell viability after 3 h from 85% to 90% (control) to 40%. The results obtained suggest that reactions of the initial thiol-metabolites with biological macromolecules do not contribute to the induction of cytotoxicity by cysteine S-conjugates and indicate that acylating intermediates formed by cysteine conjugate R-lyase induce cytotoxic effects by non-selective acylation of cellular macromolecules.