Carotenoids are thought to act as antioxidants in vivo, decreasing oxidative damage to biomolecules and thus protecting against coronary heart disease and cancer. However, human intervention studies with p-carotene have given equivocal results in terms of cancer incidence. In an alternative molecular epidemiological approach, we have employed the 'comet assay' (single cell alkaline gel electrophoresis) to measure strand breaks, oxidized pyrimidines and altered purines in the DNA of lymphocytes from volunteers supplemented with alp-carotene, lutein, lycopene or placebo. In addition, we measured concentrations of the main serum carotenoids, and vitamins E and C, by HPLC. We report a significant negative correlation between basal concentrations of total serum carotenoids and oxidized pyrimidines. A similar correlation was seen between individual carotenoids (notably lutein and p-carotene) and oxidized pyrimidines. However, carotenoid supplementation did not have a significant effect on endogenous oxidative damage. This suggests that there are some factors in the basal diet, probably found in fruit and vegetables, that decrease oxidative damage to DNA, In this case, basal serum carotenoids may simply be markers of consumption of fruit and vegetables, they themselves having little or no protective value.