The photochemistry and photophysics of 3-amino-6-iodoacridine (Acr-I) was studied. Photolysis (350 nm) of Acr-I (free base) generates products consistent with a free radical intermediate in methanol, benzene and carbon tetrachloride. The Acr-I hydrochloride is shown to bind to calf thymus DNA and to the self-complementary dinucleotide cytidylyl-(3'-5')-guanosine (CpG) miniduplex in a manner similar to that of proflavine (Acr-NH2), a known DNA intercalator. The Acr-I is shown to more efficiently nick supercoiled plasmid DNA pBR322 upon 350 nm or 420 nm photolysis than Acr-NH2. The efficiency of Acr-I-sensitized DNA nicking is not oxygen dependent. Photolysis of the Acr-I/(CpG)2 complex leads to cleavage of the dinucleotide and to cytidine base release by selective damage to a specific ribose moiety. Dinucleotide cleavage occurs equally well in the presence or absence of oxygen, thereby eliminating a singlet oxygen- or peroxyl radical-mediated process. Photolysis of Acr-I in the presence of a mononucleotide (GMP) or a non-self-complementary dinucleotide (uridylyl-[3'-5']-cytidine-UpC) does not lead to fragmentation and base release. Similarly, photolysis of the Acr-NH2/(CpG)2 complex does not lead to fragmentation and base release. The data indicate that photolysis of an iodinated intercalator bound to CpG or plasmid DNA generates an intercalated aryl radical and that the reactive intermediate initiates a sequence of reactions that efficiently nick nucleic acids. The inactivation of lambda phage sensitized by Acr-I with UV (350 nm) light is oxygen independent but with visible (420 nm) light is strongly oxygen dependent. The Acr-I fluoresces more intensely when excited at 446 than at 376 nm. Thus, UV photolysis may lead to C-I bond homolysis and free radical formation, a process that is not energetically feasible with visible light. The results demonstrate the difficulty of extrapolating model studies involving simple molecules and DNA to understanding the mechanism of viral inactivation with a particular sensitizer.