Aza-ellipticines are DNA intercalative ellipticine analogues with antitumor activity that induce protein-linked DNA breaks in NIH 3T3 cells in culture. The effects of two aza-ellipticine congeners (BD-40 and BR-76) on the activity of purified Calf Thymus type II topoisomerase were studied using pUC13 DNA as substrate. DNA cleavage was stimulated by both molecules at those doses required for inducing lethal effects in cells (DE5O). This effect was reversed by high salt treatment, indicating that it was actually mediated by Topo II. Mapping of cleavage sites on linearized and 3' end-labelled pUC13 DNA showed that ellipticine and aza-ellipticines stimulated the same sites, which differed from those stimulated by m-AMSA. Decatenating activity of Topo II on Trypanosoma cruzi kDNA was both inhibited by ellipticine and BD-40 at concentrations much higher than DE50 concentrations. Activity of aza-ellipticines was also investigated on isolated nuclei. Unlike ellipticine which promoted DNA-breaking activity, BD-40 and BR-76 were repeatedly inactive. Prior treatment of DNA by Proteinase K did not reveal hidden breaks which are formed in intact cells treated with BD-40 (Vilarem et al., 1984, Nucleic Ac. Res. 12, 8653). Concordant with these data, BD-40 did not impair DNA-synthetic activity in isolated nuclei, while Ellipticine largely decreased it. These results indicate that lesions induced in DNA by Aza-ellipticines are mediated by Topo II. The absence of effect of these drugs on isolated nuclei compared to that of Ellipticine may be due to some specific features of the association between Topo II and Aza-ellipticines or reflect a bioactivation step as a prerequisite for in vivo activity.