Stratospheric ozone depletion may result in increased solar UV-B radiation to the ocean's upper layers and may cause deleterious effects on marine organisms. The primary UV-B damage induced in biological systems is to DNA. While physical measurements of solar UV-B penetration into the sea have been made, the effective depth and magnitude of actual DNA damage have not been determined. In the experiments reported here, UV-B-induced photoproducts (cyclobutane pyrimidine dimers) have been quantified in DNA molecules exposed to solar UV at the surface and at various depths in clear, tropical marine waters off Lee Stocking Island (23 degrees 45' N, 76 degrees 0.7' W), Exuma Cays, Bahamas. (14C)thymidine-labeled DNA or unlabeled bacteriophage phi X174 DNA was placed in specially designed quartz tubes at various depths for up to five days. Following exposure, DNA samples were removed to the laboratory where UV-B-induced pyrimidine dimers were quantified using a radiochromatographic assay, and bacteriophage DNA inactivation by solar UV-B was assayed by plaque formation in spheroplasts of Escherichia coli. Pyrimidine dimer induction was linear with time but the accumulation of dimers in DNA with time varied greatly with depth. Attenuation of dimer formation with depth of water was exponential. DNA at 3 m depth had only 17% of the pyrimidine dimers found at the surface. Bacteriophage phi X174 DNA, while reduced 96% in plaque-forming ability by a one day exposure to solar UV at the surface of the water, showed no effect on plaque formation after a similar exposure at 3 m. The data collected at the water's surface showed a "surface-enhanced dose" in that DNA damages at the real surface were greater than at the imaginary surface, which was obtained by extrapolating the data at depth to the surface. These results show the sensitivity of both the biochemical (dimers) and biological (phage plaques) DNA dosimeters. DNA dosimeters offer a sensitive, convenient and relatively inexpensive monitoring system, having both biochemical and biological endpoints for monitoring the biologically effective UV-B flux in the marine environment. Unlike physical dosimeters, DNA dosimeters do not have to be adjusted for biological effectiveness since they are sensitive only to DNA-mediated biologically effective UV-B radiation. Results of pyrimidine dimer induction in DNA by solar UV accurately predicted UV doses to the phage DNA.