Activation of purine nucleoside analogs by Escherichia coli purine nucleoside phosphorylase (PNP) is being evaluated as a suicide gene therapy strategy for the treatment of cancer. Because the mechanisms of action of two toxic purine bases, 6-methylpurine (MeP) and 2-fluoroadenine (F-Ade), that are generated by this approach are poorly understood, mechanistic studies were initiated to learn how these compounds differ from agents that are being used currently. The concentration of F-Ade, MeP, or 5-fluorouracil required to inhibit CEM cell growth by 50% after a 4-hr incubation was 0.15, 9, or 120 μM, respectively. F-Ade and MeP were also toxic to quiescent MRC-5, CEM, and Balb 3T3 cells. Treatment of CEM, MRC-5, or Balb 3T3 cells with either F-Ade or MeP resulted in the inhibition of protein, RNA, and DNA syntheses. CEM cells converted F-Ade and MeP to F-ATP and MeP-ribonucleoside triphosphate (MeP-R-TP), respectively. The half-life for disappearance of HeP- ribonucleoside triphosphate from CEM cells was approximately 48 hr, whereas the half-lives of F-ATP and ATP were approximately 5 hr. Both MeP and F-Ade were incorporated into the RNA and DNA of CEM cells. These studies indicated that the mechanisms of action of F-Ade and MeP were quite different from those of other anticancer agents, and suggested that the generation of these agents in tumor cells by E. coli PNP could result in significant advantages over those generated by either herpes simplex virus thymidine kinase or E. coli cytosine deaminase. These advantages include a novel mechanism of action resulting in toxicity to nonproliferating and proliferating tumor cells and the high potency of these agents during short-term treatment.