1,(2-Chloroethyl)-3-cyclohexyl-1-nitrosourea (CCNU) and other chloroethylnitrosourea anticancer agents in clinical use produce severe and cumulative bone marrow toxicity. Chlorozotocin, a glucose analogue, has demonstrated reduced hematologic toxicity while retaining full antitumor activity. The biochemical-pharmacologic properties of chlorozotocin and CCNU were compared in human bone marrow. After a 2-hr incubation with a 0.1-mM drug concentration, total cellular uptake of chlorozotocin in whole marrow was 2.47 +/- 0.80 pmole/10(4) cells and was not significantly different compared to the uptake of 1.94 +/- 0.53 pmole/10(4) cells with CCNU. The quantitative alkylation of bone marrow DNA by chlorozotocin, 22.8 +/- 1.2 pmole/mg DNA, was equivalent to that produced by CCNU, 22.9 +/- 0.5 pmole/mg DNA. Bone marrow was separated into 14 fractions by centrifugal elutriation. CCNU uptake was found to be greater than that of chlorozotocin in 3 fractions that were primarily composed of lymphocytes, monocytes, and normoblasts. Chlorozotocin uptake was greater than CCNU in 6 fractions that contained primarily mature and immature myeloid cells as well as the highest CFU-GM activity. The two drugs produced a comparable degree of DNA strand breakage and DNA-protein cross-linking as measured by alkaline elution of pooled fractions of elutriated bone marrow. DNA interstrand crosslinking was not found with either drug. The most significant finding of this study is the differences in the site of drug alkylation by chlorozotocin and CCNU in bone marrow chromatin. Endonuclease digestions with MCN, DNase I, and DNase II showed nonrandom alkylation of specific regions of chromatin by the two drugs: CCNU demonstrated a preferential binding to the transcriptionally active regions of chromatin, whereas chlorozotocin predominantly alkylated the transcriptionally inactive regions. These data suggest that the lethal damage of nitrosourea alkylation in human bone marrow is principally expressed in transcriptionally active regions of chromatin.