Cyanide assimilation by the beta-cyanoalanine pathway produces asparagine, aspartate and ammonium, allowing cyanide to serve as alternate or supplemental source of nitrogen. Experiments with wheat and sorghum examined the enrichment of (15)N from cyanide as a function of external cyanide concentration in the presence or absence of nitrate and/or ammonium. Cyanogenic nitrogen became enriched in plant tissues following exposure to (15)N-cyanide concentrations from 5 to 200 microm, but when exposure occurred in the absence of nitrate and ammonium, (15)N enrichment increased significantly in sorghum shoots at solution cyanide concentrations of > or =50 microm and in wheat roots at 200 microm cyanide. In an experiment with sorghum using (13)C(15)N, there was also a significant difference in the tissue (13)C:(15)N ratio, suggestive of differential metabolism and transport of carbon and nitrogen under nitrogen-free conditions. A reciprocal (15)N labelling study using KC(15)N and (15)NH(4)(+) and wheat demonstrated an interaction between cyanide and ammonium in roots in which increasing solution ammonium concentrations decreased the enrichment from 100 microm cyanide. In contrast, with increasing solution cyanide concentrations there was an increase in the enrichment from ammonium. The results suggest increased transport and assimilation of cyanide in response to decreased nitrogen supply and perhaps to ammonium supply.