A variety of purine analogs inhibit the growth and induce the differentiation of human promyelocytic leukemia (HL-60) cells that lack the purine salvage enzyme hypoxanthine-guanine phosphoribosyltransferase (HGPRT). Mechanisms by which purine analogs induce differentiation offer unique potential for cancer chemotherapy. The guanine analogs, 6-thioguanine and 8-azaguanine, induce granulocytic differentiation of HGPRT-deficient HL-60 promyelocytes. Although these compounds are useful as model purine analogs that induce differentiation in HGPRT-deficient HL-60 cells, they suffer the disadvantage that they are highly cytotoxic to wild-type cells. We studied the effect of the hypoxanthine analog 6-ethylmercaptopurine on wild-type and HGPRT-deficient HL-60 cells. 6-Ethylmercaptopurine inhibits growth and produces a specific terminal end-cell in both types of HL-60 cells. The mechanism appears to be independent of the normal modes of cytotoxic activation through HGPRT or adenine phosphoribosyltransferase (APRT), since no new peaks were seen in HPLC chromatograms of the nucleotide pools. Furthermore, hypoxanthine and adenine failed to prevent growth inhibition by 6-ethylmercaptopurine, and inhibition of IMP dehydrogenase and the consequential alteration of the guanine nucleotide pools does not appear to be involved. The mechanism differs from that of guanine analog-induced differentiation in HGPRT-deficient HL-60 cells.