Flow cytometric and light/fluorescence microscopic analyses indicate that tributyltin (TBT) alters the plasma membrane/cytoplasm complex of the murine erythroleukemic cell (MELC) in a dose-dependent and time-dependent manner. The flow cytometric parameter axial light loss, a measure of cell volume, decreases in cells exposed to 5 microMTBT relative to control cells or cells exposed to 50 microMTBT. The flow cytometric parameter degrees light scatter, a function of refractive index and a measure of protein content, increases as a function of TBT concentration above 0.5 microM. Following exposure to TBT concentrations greater than 0.5 microM, but less than 50 microM, DNA distribution across the cell cycle cannot be resolved adequately by flow cytometry. Also, the cells become resistant to solubilization of the cell membrane/cytoplasm complex by nonionic detergents. Relative to logarithmically growing cells, MELC in the stationary phase of the growth cycle and butyic acid-differentiated cells exhibit decreased plasma membrane permeability resulting in increased carboxyfluorescein (CF) retention derived from the intracellular hydrolysis of carboxyfluorescein diacetate (CFDA).