Syn-and anti-benzo[a]pyrene diol epoxides elicit a concentration-dependent nicking of superhelical Col E1 DNA in an in vitro reaction monitored by agarose gel electrophoresis and electron microscopy. This strand scission represents less than 1 percent of the DNA modification by diol epoxide. Kinetic analysis implicates the formation of unstable phosphotriesters, hydrolysis of which nick the DNA.