DNA damage was investigated in the presence of sulfite, dissolved oxygen and cobalt(II) complexes with glycylglycylhistidine, glycylhistidyllysine, glycylglycyltyrosylarginine and tetraglycine. These studies indicated that only Co(II) complexed with glycylglycylhistidine (GGH) induced DNA strand breaks at low sulfite concentrations (1-80 microM) via strong oxidants formed in the reaction. In the presence of the other complexes, some damage occurred only in the presence of high sulfite concentrations (0.1-2.0 mM) after incubation for 4 h. In the presence of GGH, Co(II) and dissolved O2, DNA damage must involve a reactive high-valent cobalt complex. The damaging effect was increased by adding S(IV), due to the oxysulfur radicals formed as intermediates in S(IV) autoxidation catalyzed by the complex. SO3 -, HO and H radicals were detected by EPR-spin trapping experiments with DMPO (5,5-dimethyl-1-pyrroline N-oxide). The results indicate that Co(II) binds O2 in the presence of GGH, and leads to the formation of a DMPO-HO adduct without first forming free superoxide or hydroxyl radical, supporting the participation of a reactive high-valent cobalt complex.