BACKGROUND: Radiocontrast-induced nephropathy is a clinically important complication of invasive cardiological procedures. It has been associated with DNA fragmentation of renal tubular cells, which is a hallmark feature of programmed cell death (apoptosis). We investigated the mechanism of this DNA fragmentation in an in vitro model of radiocontrast cytotoxicity on renal epithelial cells. METHODS: Madin Darby canine kidney (MDCK) cell monolayers were incubated (for 2-8 h) with isoiodine doses (37-111 mg iodine/ml) of the highly hyperosmolal, ionic radiocontrast agent diatrizoate or of the less hyperosmolal, non-ionic substance iopamidol. Mannitol, urea, and NaCl control media of corresponding hyperosmolality were used to evaluate the contribution of hypertonicity, hyperosmolality and/or ionic strength to radiocontrast toxicity. DNA fragmentation was assessed using fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS), agarose gel electrophoresis and terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated deoxyuridine nick end labelling (TUNEL), cell morphology was analysed in Giemsa-stained cytospins. RESULTS: Diatrizoate induced concentration- and time-dependent DNA fragmentation of MDCK cells which was associated with morphological signs of apoptosis. Cycloheximide (1 microg/ml) did not prevent diatrizoate-induced DNA fragmentation, indicating that it is not dependent on protein synthesis. Diatrizoate-mediated cell death was associated with cell detachment from the tissue culture matrix. However, the DNA fragmentation is not a consequence of cell detachment since the prevention of cell attachment on agarose-coated dishes induced significantly less DNA fragmentation than diatrizoate. Iopamidol caused no detectable DNA breakdown. In contrast, hypertonic mannitol and sodium chloride, but not hyperosmolal urea, induced DNA fragmentation in MDCK cells, albeit less than diatrizoate. CONCLUSIONS: The DNA fragmentation of MDCK cells induced by diatrizoate is related to its hypertonicity in this in vitro model of radiocontrast cytotoxicity. Nuclear disintegration with subsequent cell death may contribute to the pathophysiology of radiocontrast-induced nephropathy, particularly in the hypertonic/hypoxic environment of the renal medulla. The present results underscore the importance of avoiding hyperosmolal urine states in patients at high risk of radiocontrast-induced nephropathy.