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Sodium bisulfite is a mutagen which can specifically deaminate more than 96% of the cytosine residues in single-stranded DNA via formation of a 5,6-dihydrocytosine-6-sulfonate intermediate. Under the same reaction conditions, only 2-3% of the 5-methylcytosine (m5Cyt) residues in single-stranded XP-12 DNA, which has 34 mole% m5Cyt, was converted to thymine (Thy) residues. In contrast, at the deoxynucleoside and free base levels, the same treatment with bisulfite and then alkali converted 51% and > 95%, respectively, of the m5Cyt to the corresponding Thy derivatives. However, the rate of reaction of m5Cyt and its deoxyribonucleoside was much slower than that of the analogous quantitative conversion of cytosine or deoxycytidine to uracil or deoxyuridine, respectively. The much lower reactivity of m5Cyt and its derivatives compared to that of the unmethylated analogs is primarily due to a decrease in the rate of formation of the sulfonate adduct.