Bifunctional alkylating agents are known to cross-link DNA by simultaneously alkylating two guanine residues located on opposite strands. Despite this apparent requirement for bifunctionality, 1-(2-chloroethyl)-1-nitrosoureas bearing a single alkylating function were found to cross-link DNA in vitro. Cross-linking was demonstrated by showing inhibition of alkali-induced strand separation. Extensive cross-linking was observed in DNA treated with 1-(2-chloroethyl)-1-nitrosourea, 1,3-bis-(2-chloroethyl)-1-nitrosourea, and 1-(2-chloroethyl)-3-cyclohexyl-1-nitrosourea. The reaction occurs in two steps, an initial binding followed by a second step which can proceed after removal of unbound drug. It is suggested that the first step is chloroethylation of a nucleophilic site on one strand and that the second step involves displacement of Cl- by a nucleophilic site on the opposite strand, resulting in an ethyl bridge between the strands. Consistent with this possiblity, 1-(2-fluoroethyl)-3-cyclohexyl-1-nitrosourea produced much less cross-linking, as expected from the known low activity of F-, compared with Cl-, as leaving group. 1-Methyl-1-nitrosourea, which is known to depurinate DNA, produced no detectable cross-linking.