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Treatment with the sulfhydryl oxidant diamide denatures and aggregates cellular proteins, which prior studies have implicated as an oxidative damage that activates the heat shock transcription factor and induces thermotolerance. This study was initiated to further characterize cellular response to diamide-denatured proteins, including their involvement in diamide cytotoxicity. Cytotoxic diamide exposures at 37.0 degrees C denatured and aggregated cellular proteins in a manner that was proportional to cell killing, but this correlation was different than that established for heated cells. Diamide exposures at 24.0 degrees C were orders of magnitude less cytotoxic, with little additional killing occurring after diamide was removed and cells were returned to 37.0 degrees C. Thus, protein denaturation that occurred at 37.0 degrees C, after proteins were chemically destabilized by diamide at 24.0 degrees C [Freeman et al., J. Cell. Physiol., 164:356-366 (1995); Senisterra et al., Biochemistry 36: 11002-11011 (1997)], had little effect on cell killing. Thermotolerance protected cells against diamide cytotoxicity but did not reduce the amount of denatured and aggregated protein observed immediately following diamide exposure. However, denatured/aggregated proteins in thermotolerant cells were disaggregated within 17 h following diamide exposure, while no disaggregation was observed in nontolerant cells. This more rapid disaggregation of proteins may be one mechanism by which thermotolerance protects cells against diamide toxicity, as it has been postulated to do against heat killing. As with heat shock, nontoxic diamide exposures induced maximal tolerance against heat killing; however, there was no detectable, increased synthesis of heat shock proteins. Thus, diamide treatment proved to be a reproducible procedure for inducing a phase of thermotolerance that does not require new heat shock protein (HSP) synthesis, without having to use transcription or translation inhibitors to suppress HSP gene expression. These results complement those from studies with other stresses to establish the importance of protein denaturation/aggregation as a cytotoxic consequence of stress and a trigger for thermotolerance induction. The data also illustrate that differences in how proteins are denatured and aggregated can affect their cytotoxicity and the manner in which thermotolerance is expressed.