Uninduced rat liver microsomes and NADPH-Cytochrome P-450 reductase, purified from phenobarbital-treated rats, catalyzed an NADPH-dependent oxidation of hydroxyl radical scavenging agents. This oxidation was not stimulated by the addition of ferric ammonium sulfate, ferric citrate, or ferric-adenine nucleotide (AMP, ADP, ATP) chelates. Striking stimulation was observed when ferric-EDTA or ferric-diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid (DTPA) was added. The iron-EDTA and iron-DTPA chelates, but not unchelated iron, iron-citrate or iron-nucleotide chelates, stimulated the oxidation of NADPH by the reductase in the absence as well as in the presence of phenobarbital-inducible cytochrome P-450. Thus, the iron chelates which promoted NADPH oxidation by the reductase were the only chelates which stimulated oxidation of hydroxyl radical scavengers by reductase and microsomes. The oxidation of aminopyrine, a typical drug substrate, was slightly stimulated by the addition of iron-EDTA or iron-DTPA to the microsomes. Catalase inhibited potently the oxidation of scavengers under all conditions, suggesting that H2O2 was the precursor of the hydroxyl radical in these systems. Very high amounts of superoxide dismutase had little effect on the iron-EDTA-stimulated rate of scavenger oxidation, whereas the iron-DTPA-stimulated rate was inhibited by 30 or 50% in microsomes or reductase, respectively. This suggests that the iron-EDTA and iron-DTPA chelates can be reduced directly by the reductase to the ferrous chelates, which subsequently interact with H2O2 in a Fenton-type reaction. Results with the reductase and microsomal systems should be contrasted with results found when the oxidation of hypoxanthine by xanthine oxidase was utilized to catalyze the production of hydroxyl radicals. In the xanthine oxidase system, ferric-ATP and -DTPA stimulated oxidation of scavengers by six- to eightfold, while ferric-EDTA stimulated 25-fold. Ferric-desferrioxamine consistently was inhibitory. Superoxide dismutase produced 79 to 86% inhibition in the absence or presence of iron, indicating an iron-catalyzed Haber-Weiss-type of reaction was responsible for oxidation of scavengers by the xanthine oxidase system. These results indicate that the ability of iron to promote hydroxyl radical production and the role that superoxide plays as a reductant of iron depends on the nature of the system as well as the chelating agent employed.