Electrochemical methods were used to activate MnIII and FeIII complexes of meso-tetrakis(N-methyl-4-pyridiniumyl)porphine (H2TMPyP) to cause cleavage of pBR322 DNA and to study their interaction with sonicated calf thymus DNA. Electrochemical reduction of MnIIITMPyP and FeIIITMPyP (at low concentrations) in the presence of O2 was required to activate these complexes. However, FeIIITMPyP at 1 x 10(-6) M produced DNA strand breakage without being electrochemically reduced. At low concentrations, FeIITMPyP was more efficient at cleaving DNA than MnIITMPyP. Reduction of O2 at a platinum electrode also produced some cleavage but to a much smaller extent. The oxidized form of MnIIITMPyP (charge 5+) has higher affinity for sonicated calf thymus (CT) DNA than the reduced form (charge 4+), as determined by the negative shift in E degrees' for the voltammetric wave in the presence of DNA. Both forms of FeIIITMPyP (charge 4+) interact with DNA to about the same extent. Differential pulse voltammetry was used to determine binding constants (K) and binding-site sizes (s) of the interaction of these metalloporphyrins with sonicated CT DNA. The data were analyzed assuming both mobile and static equilibria. MnIIITMPyP binds to DNA (5 mM Tris, 50 mM NaCl, pH 7) with K = 5 (+/- 2) x 10(6) M-1, s = 3 bp (mobile) or K = 3.6 (+/- 0.3) x 10(6) M-1, s = 4 bp (static). FeIIITMPyP at that ionic strength caused DNA precipitation. At higher ionic strength (0.1 M Tris, 0.1 M NaCl, pH 7), FeIIITMPyP associates to DNA with K = 4.4 (+/- 0.2) x 10(4) M-1, s = 5 bp (mobile) or K = 1.9 (+/- 0.1) x 10(4) M-1, s = 6 bp (static).