Oxidants, generated by stimulated leukocytes, induce a variety of distinct biochemical changes in target cells. Hypochlorous acid (HOCl), produced by the action of peroxidase on hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) in the presence of chloride ions, acts at low molar concentrations (10-20 microM) to damage proteins on cell membranes and destroy their function. H2O2 rapidly permeates cells and causes inhibition of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) synthesis via both glycolytic and oxidative phosphorylation (mitochondrial) pathways. In the glycolytic pathway, damage is limited to the step involving glyceraldehyde-3-PO4 dehydrogenase (GAPDH). This results from both an attack of H2O2 on GAPDH and, indirectly, by a reduction in concentration of the GAPDH cofactor, nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD). This latter effect was found to result from activation of the enzyme, poly(adenosine diphosphate) (ADP)-ribose polymerase, an enzyme involved in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) repair. DNA damage in target cells was found at low concentrations of H2O2 (20-80 microM) in many cell types. Strand breaks and base hydroxylation were observed, resulting in the generation of hydroxyl radicals (.OH) from H2O2, in the presence of a transition metal. DNA damage resulted in either cell injury and death or mutations of the base sequence and amino acid residues. These latter effects led to malignant transformations in cultured cells in both tissue cultures of the cells, and in vivo in athymic mice. Exposure of a proto-oncogene, K-ras 4B, also led to the development of a malignant transformation by virtue of mutations in codon positions 12 and 61. Thus, oxidant effects on target cells can damage multiple functional pathways inside the cells, as well as give rise to malignant transformation via DNA damage.