Methylglyoxal is present at low levels in most cells as a by-product of glycolysis and a product of lipid and amino acid catabolism. The most widely accepted method for measurement of methylglyoxal involves the derivatization of methylglyoxal with 1,2-diaminobenzene derivatives, such as o-phenylenediamine, followed by quantification of the resulting quinoxaline with high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). Here we describe the modification of this procedure for the measurement of free intra- and extracellular methylglyoxal in animal cells grown in culture. Cell harvest and sample volume measurement techniques were developed. Solid-phase extraction prior to methylglyoxal derivatization reduced interferences unique to cell culture, such as the phenol red indicator dye used in most cell culture media, and extended the useful life of the HPLC column. In addition, this extraction step significantly lessened the interference represented by oxidative degradation of nucleic acids to methylglyoxal by perchloric acid under assay conditions. The concentration of free intracellular methylglyoxal in Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells grown in culture ranged from 0.7 +/- 0.3 microM (mean +/- 2 standard deviations; n = 4) to 1.2 +/- 0.3 microM (mean +/- 2 standard deviations; n = 7). The concentration of free extracellular methylglyoxal in the growth medium was 0.07 +/- 0.02 microM (mean +/- 2 standard deviations; n = 4), severalfold less than that found inside the cell. A possible explanation for the difference between measured free intracellular and extracellular methylglyoxal levels is that the assay for free intracellular methylglyoxal also measures some reversibly bound methylglyoxal.