Chinese hamster ovary cells were exposed in vitro to various concentrations of diamide for 1 h at 37 degrees C. This treatment resulted in a dose dependent increase in cytotoxicity. Cells were also heated at 43 degrees C for 15 min, incubated at 37 degrees C for 3 h, and then exposed to various concentrations of diamide. This heat shock has been shown previously to trigger the synthesis of heat shock proteins and the development of thermotolerance. Further, under these experimental conditions both were inhibited if protein synthesis was inhibited by exposure to cycloheximide (M. L. Freeman et al., Radiat. Res., 112: 195-203, 1987). Diamide toxicity was diminished in cells made thermotolerant by the 43 degrees C/15-min heat shock. For example, at the highest dose used, 0.8 mM, survival increased from 0.93% to 6.1%. However, diamide toxicity was unaffected if the cells were exposed to diamide 3 h after a 43 degrees C/60 min heat shock. This latter heat shock produced significant inhibition of protein synthesis whereas the 15-min heat shock did not (M. L. Freeman et al., Cancer Res., 48: 7033-7037, 1988). Further, a 43 degrees C/15-min heat shock did not confer protection against diamide toxicity if the cells were simultaneously exposed to cycloheximide. Exposure to 0.8 mM diamide was shown to oxidize specific cellular proteins as measured by 2-dimensional thiol blotting. However, the degree of protein thiol modification was not affected by a prior heat shock. Nor did the heat shock increase the intracellular concentration of glutathione or the activity of glutathione reductase. The diamide treatment caused specific, as opposed to general, protein thiol oxidation and heat shock did not prevent this. It is hypothesized that it was the oxidation of protein thiols which led to cellular toxicity. Protein synthesis, triggered by heat shock, protected cells from the diamide toxicity without preventing protein thiol modification. These results suggest that the proteins synthesized after heat shock can provide protection against the consequences of aberrant proteins produced by thiol oxidation.