Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are associated with a broad spectrum of human health problems and cause cancer in rodents. In addition, these compounds cause chromosomal aberrations in humans and treated human cells. Although the underlying basis for the chromosomal damage induced by PCBs is not understood, it is believed that these compounds act through a series of phenolic and quinone-based metabolites. Recent studies indicate that several quinones that promote chromosomal damage also act as topoisomerase II poisons. Therefore, the effects of PCB quinone metabolites (including mono and dichlorinated compounds and p- and o-quinones) on the activity of human topoisomerase IIalpha were examined. Results indicate that these compounds are potent topoisomerase IIalpha poisons in vitro and act by adducting the enzyme. They also increase DNA cleavage by topoisomerase IIalpha in cultured human cells. In contrast, incubation of topoisomerase IIalpha with PCB metabolites in the absence of DNA leads to a rapid loss of enzyme activity. On the basis of (1) the differential ability of quinone-treated enzyme to bind circular and linear DNA molecules and (2) the generation of salt-stable noncovalent complexes between topoisomerase IIalpha and circular plasmids in the presence of PCB quinones, it appears that these compounds alter enzyme function (at least in part) by blocking the N-terminal gate of the protein. Finally, exposure to quinones generates a protein species with a molecular mass approximately twice that of a monomeric topoisomerase IIalpha protomer. This finding suggests that PCB quinones block the N-terminal gate by cross-linking the protomer subunits of topoisomerase IIalpha.