4-Alkylphenols, such as the antioxidant 2, 6-di-tert-butyl-4-methylphenol (BHT), exhibit toxicities that appear to be mediated by their oxidative metabolism to electrophilic quinone methides. Reactions of these Michael acceptors with simple nucleophiles and proteins have been reported, but little information is available on quinone methide binding to the competing nucleophilic sites in DNA. In the present investigation, 2'-deoxynucleoside adducts generated in vitro with two BHT-derived quinone methides, 2,6-di-tert-butyl-4-methylenecyclohexa-2,5-dienone and 6-tert-butyl-2- (2'-hydroxy-1',1'-dimethylethyl)-4-methylenecyclohexa-2,5-dieno ne (BHTOH-QM) were isolated and identified. Both quinone methides produced adducts at the 1- and N2-positions of deoxyguanosine (dG) and the N6-position of deoxyadenosine (dA). In addition, a labile adduct formed at the 7-position of dG, which degraded to the corresponding 7-alkylguanine derivative. Additional work was conducted with BHTOH-QM, the more reactive of the two quinone methides. This species also formed stable adducts at the N4-position of deoxycytosine (dC) and the 3-position of thymidine and formed a labile adduct at the 3-position of dC that underwent hydrolytic cleavage to regenerate dC. In mixtures of deoxynucleosides treated with [14C]BHTOH-QM, alkylation occurred primarily at the N2- and 7-positions of dG and the N6-position of dA and occurred secondarily at the 1-position of dG. Treatment of calf thymus DNA with this quinone methide yielded N6-dA and N2-dG adducts with the former predominating. The unstable 7-dG adduct was detected by analysis of the 7-alkylguanine product from depurination. These results demonstrate that quinone methides are most likely to damage DNA through alkylation of the exocyclic amino groups of purine residues and possibly also by attack at the 7-position of dG followed by depurination.