Following exposure to 9-(2-phosphonylmethoxyethyl)adenine (an inhibitor of the cellular DNA polymerases alpha, delta and epsilon), human erythroleukemia K562, human T-lymphoid CEM and murine leukemia L1210 cells markedly accumulated in the S phase of the cell cycle. In contrast to DNA replication, RNA synthesis (transcription) and protein synthesis (mRNA translation) were not affected by 9-(2-phosphonylmethoxyethyl)-adenine. The ribonucleoside triphosphate pools were slightly elevated, while the intracellular levels of all four deoxyribonucleoside triphosphates were 1.5-4-fold increased in 9-(2-phosphonylmethoxyethyl)adenine-treated K562, CEM and L1210 cells. The effect of 9-(2-phosphonylmethoxyethyl)adenine on de novo (thymidylate synthase-mediated) and salvage (thymidine kinase-mediated) dTTP synthesis was investigated using radio-labelled nucleoside precursors. The amount of thymidylate synthase-derived dTTP in the acid soluble pool was 2-4-fold higher in PMEA-treated than in untreated K562 cells, which is in accord with the 3-4-fold expansion of the global dTTP level in the presence of 9-(2-phosphonylmethoxyethyl)adenine. Strikingly, 2-derived dTTP accumulated to a much higher extent (i.e. 16-40-fold) in the soluble dTTP pool upon 9-(2-phosphonylmethoxyethyl)adenine treatment. In keeping with this finding, a markedly increased thymidine kinase activity could be demonstrated in extracts of 9-(2-phosphonylmethoxyethyl)adenine-treated K562 cell cultures. Also, in the presence of 200 microM 9-(2-phosphonylmethoxyethyl)adenine, 14-fold less thymidylate synthase-derived but only 3-fold less thymidine kinase-derived dTTP was incorporated into the DNA of the K562 cells. These data show that thymidine incorporation may be inappropriate as a cell proliferation marker in the presence of DNA synthesis inhibitors such as 9-(2-phosphonylmethoxyethyl)adenine. Our findings indicate that 9-(2-phosphonylmethoxyethyl)adenine causes a peculiar pattern of (deoxy)ribonucleotide metabolism deregulation in drug-treated tumor cells, as a result of the metabolic block imposed by the drug on the S phase of the cell cycle.