Unexpected genetic toxicity to rodents of the N′,N′-dimethyl analogues of MNU and ENU

H. Tinwell, D. Paton, J. B. Guttenplan, J. Ashby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Lijinsky and his colleagues have reported that the N′,N′-dimethyl analogues of ENU and MNU [N′,N′-dimethyl-N-ethyl-N-nitrosourea (DMENU) and trimethylnitrosourea (TMNU), respectively] are carcinogenic to rats despite their extreme hydrolytic stability which would reduce or preclude generation of alkylating species analogous to those formed upon hydrolysis of ENU and MNU. Lijinsky and his colleagues were unable to rationalize those activities of DMENU and TMNU despite extensive experimentation. We therefore decided to study this problem further. Whichever mode is accepted for the generation of electrophilic/mutagenic/carcinogenic reactive species from ENU and MNU, blocking of the free-NH2 group with methyl groups [-NMe2) should ablate or abolish activity. Consistent with this, DMENU and TMNU gave negative results in the NBP alkylation test while the parent compounds gave an instantaneous deep blue coloration. Studies of the rate of hydrolysis of these four compounds revealed ENU and MNU to have half-lives of 8 min, while the alkylated analogues (DMENU and TMNU) had half-lives of 25 and 41 days, respectively. Hydrolysis of ENU and MNU, to yield the alkylating species, proceeds either via proton abstraction from the - NH2 group or by attack by water on the carbon of the carbonyl group. Methylation will inhibit both of these pathways, the first absolutely (no -NH2 protons) and the second partially, via steric inhibition. The slow hydrolysis observed for DMENU and TMNU suggests that the latter route of hydrolysis is applicable. Studies with strain TA1535 of Salmonella typhimurium (without S9 mix) confirmed the potent mutagenic activity for ENU and MNU (∼300-fold increase in revertants at 2,000 p.g/plate and ∼180-fold increase in revertants at 150 μg/plate respectively). In contrast, the methylated analogues showed only weak mutagenic activity (∼3-fold) at ~100-fold higher dose-levels. Addition of S9 mix did not affect the mutagenicity of DMENU or TMNU. To this point, hypothesis and data coincide. ENU and MNU are potent micronucleus-inducing agents to the mouse bone marrow, and given the above data, it was expected that DMENU and TMNU would show weak or no activity in that assay. In fact, the methylated analogues were as effective as ENU and MNU as clastogens to the mouse bone marrow. Four possible reasons for this conflict of theory and data are explored. The speculative explanation we favour for these effects is that the net alkylation of bone marrow DNA is the same for all four chemicals. With ENU and MNU, most of the alkylating activity is dissipated by rapid hydrolysis. Thus, only a small fraction of the administered dose survives to alkylate the bone marrow. Due to the enhanced stability of the methyl analogues most of the delivered dose will reach the bone marrow. However, because of their lower intrinsic reactivity, only a small fraction of the target dose will alkylate the bone marrow DNA during the time window of the experiment. If these opposing influences happen to balance out, the essentially identical bone marrow genetic toxicity for the four chemicals could be explained.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)202-210
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental and Molecular Mutagenesis
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1996


  • -NH
  • ENU
  • Hydrolysis
  • MNU
  • Methylation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Genetics(clinical)
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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