Hemoglobin adducts of the carcinogenic tobacco-specific nitrosamine 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-l-butanone (NNK) release 4-hydroxy-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (HPB) upon mild base or acid hydrolysis. HPB has been detected in hydrolysates of human hemoglobin and has been proposed as a dosimeter of exposure to and metabolic activation of NNK in people exposed to tobacco products. In this study, labeling experiments were carried out with Na18OH which provide strong evidence that the globin adduct which releases HPB upon base hydrolysis is a carboxylic acid ester. Globin was isolated from rats treated with NNK. This globin was reacted with NaCNBH3, followed by hydrolysis at room temperature with 0.2 N NaOH. Analysis of the products demonstrated the presence of 4-hydroxy-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanol (7), but not HPB. These results demonstrate that the adduct in globin has a free carbonyl group and is not a Schiff base. This sequence of reactions was then carried out with Na18OH, under conditions which would have resulted in incorporation of 18O into 7 if nucleophilic displacement at carbon 4 of the adduct had occurred. Analysis of the products by GC-MS showed no detectable incorporation of 180 into 7. These results demonstrate that the globin adduct which releases HPB upon base hydrolysis is a 4-(3-pyridyl)-4-oxobutyl carboxylic ester. Consistent with this conclusion, a model ester, α-methyl β-[4-(3-pyridyl)-4-oxobutyl] N-(carbobenzyloxy)-L-aspartate (13), hydrolyzed in base and acid in a manner similar to that observed with globin from NNK-treated rats.