Nitrogen mustard (bis(2-chloroethyl) methylamine, HN2) inhibited the binding of upstream factors Sp1 and AP2 to their consensus sequences. At concentrations where 50% of the consensus sequence DNA contained at least one lesion, HN2 inhibited formation of the Sp1 complex by 37% (40 microM HN2) and the AP2 complex by 40% (50 microM HN2). The binding of the TATA binding protein (TBP) to the TATA element was also inhibited by HN2, whereas sulphur mustard and the monofunctional sulphur mustard 2-chloroethyl ethyl sulphide (CEES) resulted in a disproportional extent of inhibition with respect to the level of alkylation. The level of alkylation of the TBP oligonucleotide varied significantly at 100 microM drug, with 80, 42 and 15% of HN2, sulphur mustard and CEES, respectively. However, this level of alkylation inhibited formation of the TBP-DNA complex by 70, 70 and 45%, respectively. This differential sensitivity of transcription factors to mustard-induced DNA damage therefore appears to reside dominantly in the stereochemical differences between the specific mustard lesions.