We examined the susceptibility of promastigotes of Leishmania major to sulfonamides and sulfones in vitro. In a completely defined medium only sulfamoxole, sulfaquinoxaline, and dapsone were inhibitory; the concentrations required for 50% inhibition of the rate of growth were 150, 600, and 600 microM, respectively. Eleven other sulfa drugs were ineffective at concentrations up to 2 mM. The growth inhibition was similar to that observed in procaryotes: the cells continued logarithmic growth for several cell doublings before inhibition was observed. Surprisingly, the addition of p-aminobenzoate or folate did not reverse the effects of the active sulfa drugs, the effects of sulfamoxole and methotrexate were additive rather than synergistic, and the addition of thymidine reversed methotrexate but not sulfa-drug inhibition. These results suggest that the mode of action of sulfa drugs on L. major is not by the classical route of inhibition of de novo folate synthesis. Promastigotes could be propagated for more than 40 passages in a completely defined medium in which the only added pterin was biopterin. The folate concentration in this medium was less than 10(-10) to 10(-11) M, as determined by a Leishmania bioassay. Although these data suggest that L. major may be capable of de novo synthesis of folate, the nonclassical mode of action of sulfa drugs, as well as other studies, favors the view that L. major is auxotrophic for folate.