We report the ultrastructural alterations induced during the proliferative stages of Trypanosoma (Schizotrypanum) cruzi, the causative agent of Chagas' disease, by two ergosterol biosynthesis inhibitors, ketoconazole and terbinafine, which had previously been shown to be potent growth inhibitors whose effects are potentiated when used in combination (J. A. Urbina, K. Lazardi, T. Aguirre, M. M. Piras, and R. Piras, Antimicrob. Agents Chemother. 32:1237-1242, 1988). Epimastigotes treated with a low concentration of ketoconazole (1 microM), which blocks ergosterol biosynthesis at the level of C-14 demethylation of lanosterol and induces cell lysis coincident with total ergosterol depletion, showed gross alterations of the kinetoplast-mitochondrion complex, which swelled and lost the organization of its inner membrane and the electron-dense bodies of its matrix. Thus, coincident with the beginning of cell lysis, the kinetoplast-mitochondrion complex occupied greater than 80% of the cell volume, while other subcellular structures such as the nucleus and subpellicular microtubules were not affected. Terbinafine, which blocks ergosterol synthesis in these cells at the level of squalene synthetase and thus leads to almost immediate arrest of growth at concentrations greater than 1 microM, produced proliferation of glycosomelike bodies, binucleated cells (arrest at cytokinesis), and eventually massive vacuolization. When the drugs were combined, the predominant effect was mitochondrial swelling, which was more drastic and took place earlier than that observed in cells treated with ketoconazole alone. In amastigotes proliferating in Vero cells, ketoconazole at the concentration required to eradicate the parasites (10 nM) produced mitochondrial swelling, the appearance of autophagic vacuoles containing partially degraded subcellular material, and finally a general breakdown of the subcellular structures. Terbinafine at 3 microM induced more limited ultrastructural damage to the amastigotes consistent with increased vacuolization of the cells and the appearance of occasional autophagic vacuoles. When the drugs were used in combination, just 1 nM was required for the total eradication of parasites, the ultrastructural effects were more extensive, and cell disintegration occurred earlier than when any of the drugs was used alone at a much higher concentration. No effect of the drugs on the ultrastructure of the host cells were observed at any of the concentrations tested.