Cultured H35 hepatoma cells release a cytotoxic factor in response to irradiation with X-rays. When the conditioned medium from irradiated cells is given to nonirradiated cells, growth is inhibited and followed by cell death, possibly apoptosis, Analysis of the conditioned medium reveals a dramatic change in the ornithine (urea) cycle components after the irradiation. A strong decrease in medium arginine is accompanied with parallel increases in ornithine, citrulline and ammonia. The high level of ammonia appears to be largely responsible for the observed cytotoxicity. The development of hyperammonia by irradiated cells and the related toxicity depend on the radiation dose and the number of cells seeded thereafter for the medium conditioning. Development of cytotoxicity by irradiated cells is completely prevented with the arginase inhibitor L-norvaline, in arginine-deficient medium or when citrulline replaces arginine. These preventive measures result in subtoxic ammonia levels.