Previously, we identified the heavy chain of ferritin as a developmentally regulated nuclear protein of embryonic chicken corneal epithelial cells. The nuclear ferritin is assembled into a supramolecular form indistinguishable from the cytoplasmic form of ferritin found in other cell types and thus most likely has iron-sequestering capabilities. Free iron, via the Fenton reaction, is known to exacerbate UV-induced and other oxidative damage to cellular components, including DNA. Since corneal epithelial cells are constantly exposed to UV light, we hypothesized that the nuclear ferritin might protect the DNA of these cells from free radical damage. To test this possibility, primary cultures of cells from corneal epithelium and stroma, and from skin epithelium and stroma, were UV irradiated, and DNA strand breaks were detected by an in situ 3'-end labeling method. Corneal epithelial cells without nuclear ferritin were also examined. We observed that the corneal epithelial cells with nuclear ferritin had significantly less DNA breakage than other cell types examined. Furthermore, increasing the iron concentration of the culture medium exacerbated the generation of UV-induced DNA strand breaks in corneal and skin fibroblasts, but not in the corneal epithelial cells. Most convincingly, corneal epithelial cells in which the expression of nuclear ferritin was inhibited became much more susceptible to UV-induced DNA damage. Therefore, it seems that corneal epithelial cells have evolved a novel, nuclear ferritin-based mechanism for protecting their DNA against UV damage.