The mechanisms by which DNA interstrand cross-links (ICLs) are repaired in mammalian cells are unclear. Studies in bacteria and yeasts indicate that both nucleotide excision repair (NER) and recombination are required for their removal and that double-strand breaks are produced as repair intermediates in yeast cells. The role of NER and recombination in the repair of ICLs induced by nitrogen mustard (HN2) was investigated using Chinese hamster ovary mutant cell lines. XPF and ERCC1 mutants (defective in genes required for NER and some types of recombination) and XRCC2 and XRCC3 mutants (defective in RAD51-related homologous recombination genes) were highly sensitive to HN2. Cell lines defective in other genes involved in NER (XPB, XPD, and XPG), together with a mutant defective in nonhomologous end joining (XRCC5), showed only mild sensitivity. In agreement with their extreme sensitivity, the XPF and ERCC1 mutants were defective in the incision or 'unhooking' step of ICL repair. In contrast, the other mutants defective in NER activities, the XRCC2 and XRCC3 mutants, and the XRCC5 mutant all showed normal unhooking kinetics. Using pulsed-field gel electrophoresis, DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) were found to be induced following nitrogen mustard treatment. DSB induction and repair were normal in all the NER mutants, including XPF and ERCC1. The XRCC2, XRCC3, and XRCC5 mutants also showed normal induction kinetics. The XRCC2 and XRCC3 homologous recombination mutants were, however, severely impaired in the repair of DSBs. These results define a role for XPF and ERCC1 in the excision of ICLs, but not in the recombinational components of cross-link repair. In addition, homologous recombination but not nonhomologous end joining appears to play an important role in the repair of DSBs resulting from nitrogen mustard treatment.