Human arylamine N-acetyltransferases (NATs) are expressed as two polymorphic isoforms, NAT1 and NAT2, that have toxicologically significant functions in the detoxification of xenobiotic arylamines by N-acetylation and in the bioactivation of N-arylhydroxylamines by O-acetylation. NAT1 also catalyzes the N-acetylation of 4-aminobenzoylglutamic acid, a product of folic acid degradation, and is associated with endogenous functions in embryonic development. On the basis of earlier studies with hamster NAT1, hamster NAT2, and human NAT1, we proposed that human NAT2 would be more susceptible than NAT1 to inactivation by N-arylhydroxamic acid metabolites of arylamines. Kinetic analyses of the inactivation of recombinant NAT1 and NAT2 by the N-arylhydroxamic acid, N-hydroxy-2-acetylaminofluorene (N-OH-AAF), as well as the inactivation of NAT2 by N-hydroxy-4-acetylaminobiphenyl (N-OH-4-AABP), resulted in second-order inactivation rate constants (kinact/K I) that were several fold greater for NAT2 than for NAT1. Mass spectrometric analysis showed that inactivation of NAT2 in the presence of the N-arylhydroxamic acids was due to formation of a sulfinamide adduct with Cys68. Treatment of HeLa cells with N-OH-4-AABP and N-OH-AAF revealed that the compounds were less potent inactivators of intracellular NAT activity than the corresponding nitrosoarenes, but unexpectedly, the hydroxamic acids caused a significantly greater loss of NAT1 activity than of NAT2 activity. Nitrosoarenes are the electrophilic products responsible for NAT inactivation upon interaction of the enzymes with Narylhydroxamic acids, as well as being metabolic products of arylamine oxidation. Treatment of recombinant NAT2 with the nitrosoarenes, 4-nitrosobiphenyl (4-NO-BP) and 2-nitrosofluorene (2-NOF), caused rapid and irreversible inactivation of the enzyme by sulfinamide adduct formation with Cys68, but the kinact/KI values for inactivation of recombinant NAT2 and NAT1 did not indicate significant selectivity for either isoform. Also, the IC50 values for inactivation of HeLa cell cytosolic NAT1 and NAT2 by 4-NO-BP were similar, as were the IC50 values obtained with 2-NO-F. Treatment of HeLa cells with low concentrations (1-10 μM) of either 4-NO-BP or 2-NO-F resulted in preferential and more rapid loss of NAT1 activity than NAT2 activity. Because of its wide distribution in human tissues and its early expression in developing tissues, the apparent high sensitivity of intracellular NAT1 to inactivation by reactive metabolites of environmental arylamines may have important toxicological consequences.