The toxic, bacterial metabolite sulfide is implicated in ulcerative colitis. Ulcerative colitis patients taking 5-aminosalicylic acid-containing drugs have lower fecal sulfide levels than those not taking these drugs. The effects of sulfasalazine, balsalazide, olsalazine, and 5-aminosalicylic acid on sulfide production were studied in a three-stage chemostat pulsed on days 1 to 3 with 5 g sulfasalazine (40 mM) and in pure cultures of amino acid-fermenting and sulfate-reducing bacteria. By the third day of sulfasalazine addition to the chemostat, sulfide concentrations in vessels 1 through 3 had dropped from 1.73, 1.78, and 1.43 mM to 0.01, 0.15, and 0.9 mM, respectively. In pure cultures, 50% inhibition of sulfide production from amino acids occurred at 2.5 +/- 0.05 mM for sulfasalazine, 5 +/- 0.2 mM for olsalazine, 6 +/- 1 mM for balsalazide, and more than 20 mM for 5-aminosalicylic acid. Fifty percent inhibition of sulfide production from sulfate occurred at 0.25 +/- 0.05 mM for sulfasalazine, 0.7 +/- 0.2 mM for balsalazide, and 9.0 +/- 1.0 mM for 5-aminosalicylic acid. The order of effectiveness of equimolar concentrations of drugs (most effective first) in this assay was sulfasalazine, then olsalazine (though given clinically at half the dose of other 5-aminosalicylic acid prodrugs) and balsalazide, and lastly 5-aminosalicylic acid. Inhibition of sulfide production by 5-aminosalicylic acid-containing drugs may contribute to their therapeutic effect in ulcerative colitis.