Cell lines derived from different species show striking differences in their sensitivity to the cytostatic and anti-retrovirus activity, as well as the intracellular metabolism, of 3'-azido-2',3'-dideoxythymidine (AzddThd) and 2',3'-dideoxycytidine (ddCyd). AzddThd and ddCyd are considerably more cytostatic to human (i.e. Raji, Molt/4F, ATH8) cell lines than murine (i.e. L1210) cells. The intracellular levels of AzddThd 5'-triphosphate and ddCyd 5'-triphosphate formed do not seem related to the cytostatic effects achieved by these compounds. In human lymphoid (ATH8, Molt/4F) and caprine ovary (Tahr) cells AzddThd accumulates as its 5'-monophosphate (AzddTMP), whereas in murine leukemia (L1210) cells it is readily metabolized to the 5'-triphosphate (AzddTTP). The rapid conversion of AzddThd to AzddTTP in murine cells may explain why AzddThd has a pronounced activity against Moloney murine sarcoma virus (MSV)-induced transformation of murine C3H cells in vitro and MSV-induced tumor development in newborn NMRI mice in vivo. In contrast, ddCyd has not much activity in these murine assay systems, and this may seem related to the poor conversion of ddCyd to its 5'-triphosphate in murine cells. In human cells, however, ddCyd is more extensively phosphorylated to its 5'-triphosphate than in murine cells. When [3H]AzddThd and [3H]ddCyd were compared for their metabolism in ATH8 and Molt/4F cells, little [3H]AzddTTP was formed even after a 48-hr incubation period, whereas under the same conditions substantial levels of [3H]ddCTP built up gradually. Thus, much higher ddCTP than AzddTTP levels were achieved in human lymphoid cells, an observation that may be particularly relevant from a therapeutic viewpoint.