The single-cell gel electrophoresis (comet) assay is a method which allows the detection of DNA strand breaks in individual cells. It has been suggested that the single cell gel electrophoresis assay, as an index of DNA fragmentation during cell death, may be applied to monitor apoptosis. The aim of the present study was to determine if the pattern of DNA fragmentation determined by the single cell gel electrophoresis assay can be used to discriminate between the mode of cell death in two cell lines (U937, a human monocytic blood cell line and HepG2, a human hepatocarcinoma cell line) which were treated with 30 microM 7beta-hydroxycholesterol (7betaOHC) over a 48 hr period. The single cell gel electrophoresis assay was compared with more established methods for the determination of apoptosis such as morphological examination, flow cytometry and DNA laddering. The percentage of maximally damaged nuclei as measured by the single cell gel electrophoresis assay was found to be similar at 48 hr in both U937 and HepG2 cells when treated with 7betaOHC. However, morphological examination, flow cytometry and DNA laddering techniques showed that 7betaOHC induced apoptosis in U937 cells but not in HepG2 cells. Thus, although the alkaline single cell gel electrophoresis assay detected DNA strand breaks occurring during cell death, these breaks were observed only when the process was fairly well advanced and a major part of the cells had lost membrane permeability. Therefore the present report demonstrates that the single cell gel electrophoresis assay, used in isolation, cannot accurately be used to distinguish between the mode of cell death induced by 7betaOHC in U937 cells (apoptosis), or HepG2 cells (cell lysis).