Cytosine arabinoside (araC) is an important drug used for the treatment of human leukemias. In order to exert its cytotoxic effects, araC must be incorporated into chromosomal DNA. Although specific DNA lesions that involve base loss or modification stimulate nucleic acid cleavage mediated by type II topoisomerases, the effects of deoxyribose sugar ring modification on enzyme activity have not been examined. Therefore, the effects of incorporated araC residues on the DNA cleavage/religation equilibrium of human topoisomerase IIalpha and beta were characterized. AraC lesions were position-specific topoisomerase II poisons and stimulated DNA scission mediated by both human type II enzymes. However, the positional specificity of araC residues differed from that previously reported for other cleavage-enhancing DNA lesions. Finally, additive or synergistic increases in DNA cleavage were observed in the presence of araC lesions and etoposide. These findings broaden the range of DNA lesions known to alter topoisomerase II function and raise the possibility that this enzyme may mediate some of the cellular effects of araC.