Bursts of free radicals produced by ionization of water in close vicinity to DNA can produce clusters of opposed DNA lesions and these are termed multiply damaged sites (MDS). How MDS are processed by the Escherichia coli DNA glycosylases, endonuclease (endo) III and endo VIII, which recognize oxidized pyrimidines, is the subject of this study. Oligonucleotide substrates were constructed containing a site of pyrimidine damage or an abasic (AP) site in close proximity to a single nucleotide gap, which simulates a free radical-induced single-strand break. The gap was placed in the opposite strand 1, 3 or 6 nt 5' or 3' of the AP site or base lesion. Endos III and VIII were able to cleave an AP site in the MDS, no matter what the position of the opposed strand break, although cleavage at position one 5' or 3' was reduced compared with cleavage at positions three or six 5' or 3'. Neither endo III nor endo VIII was able to remove the base lesion when the gap was positioned 1 nt 5' or 3' in the opposite strand. Cleavage of the modified pyrimidine by endo III increased as the distance increased between the base lesion and the opposed strand break. With endo VIII, however, DNA breakage at the site of the base lesion was equivalent to or less when the gap was positioned 6 nt 3' of the lesion than when the gap was 3 nt 3' of the lesion. Gel mobility shift analysis of the binding of endo VIII to an oligonucleotide containing a reduced AP (rAP) site in close opposition to a single nucleotide gap correlated with cleavage of MDS substrates by endo VIII. If the strand break in the MDS was replaced by an oxidized purine, 7,8-dihydro-8-oxoguanine (8-oxoG), neither endo VIII cleavage nor binding were perturbed. These data show that processing of oxidized pyrimidines by endos III and VIII was strongly influenced by the position and type of lesion in the opposite strand, which could have a significant effect on the biological outcome of the MDS lesion.