A novel technique utilizing the quenching of fluorescence Hoechst 32258 by bromodeoxyuridine (BUdR) was used to investigate the effect of depressed glutathione (GSH) on the activation of human peripheral blood lymphocytes by phytohemagglutinin (PHA) or concanavalin A (con A). This technique allows the quantification of DNA synthesis in individual cells. Lymphocytes were purified by Ficoll-Hypaque density gradient centrifugation and treated with 5 × 10-5 M to 1 × 10-6 M 2-cyclohexene-1-one (2-CHX-1), a reagent which specifically depletes intracellular GSH, and/or interference with GSH-protein interactions, and 25 μg/ml BUdR in the presence or absence of PHA or con A. At 72 h lymphocyte smears were stained with Hoechst 33258 and examined using a computer controlled microscope photometer. When DNA synthesis was assayed using BUdR quenching two populations of lymphocytes were noted; a population which incorporated little or no BUdR (unactivated) and a population which incorporated BUdR sufficient to quench 33258 fluorescence by approximately 35%. Cells treated with graded doses of 2-CHX-1 which reduced glutathione levels by 10-90%, showed a progressive loss of cells from the activated population and the appearance of these cells in the inactivated population. Statistical analysis of the frequency histograms demonstrated that there were no cells which incorporated an intermediate amount of BUdR. This data demonstrates that depressed intracellular GSH or inhibition of GSH-protein interactions inhibits an early step in the biochemical sequence of events leading to DNA synthesis but does not inhibit the DNA synthetic process per se.