The effects of melatonin, a free-radical scavenger and a general antioxidant, on radiation-induced growth plate injury have not been studied previously. The purpose of this study was to determine the potential benefits of sparing longitudinal bone growth by fractionated radiotherapy alone compared with pretreatment with melatonin that provides differential radioprotection of normal cells. Weanling 4-wk- old ( 75 - 100 g) male Sprague - Dawley rats were randomly assigned to one of three groups: Group R received fractionated radiation alone (n = 8); groups M(5) ( n = 8) and M(15) ( n = 7) received 5 or 15 mg/ kg melatonin prior to fractionated radiation, respectively. The distal femur and proximal tibia in the right leg of each animal were exposed to a therapeutic X-irradiation dose ( 25 Gy total in three fractions) with the contralateral left leg as the non-irradiated control. Melatonin was administered intraperitoneally to the animals 30 min before radiation exposure. Six weeks after treatment, the rats were killed and the lower limbs disarticulated, skeletonized, radiographed, and bone growth was calculated based on measurement of the bone lengths. Fractionated radiation resulted in a mean percent overall limb growth loss of 41.2 +/- 9.5 and a mean percent overall limb discrepancy of 11.2 +/- 2.2. The administration of 5 or 15 mg/ kg melatonin before each of the three fractions of radiotherapy reduced the mean percent overall limb growth loss to 33.9 +/- 5.8 and 32.2 +/- 4.5, respectively, and the mean percent overall limb discrepancy to 9.4 +/- 1.6 and 8.9 +/- 1.1, respectively; these values were significantly different compared with irradiation alone (range: P = 0.01 - 0.04). When compared with Group R, the growth arrest recovered by 5 or 15 mg/ kg melatonin was 19.7 and 24.1% for the tibia, 7 and 18.6% for the femur, and 17.7 and 21.8% for the total limb, respectively. These results support further investigation of melatonin in combination with fractionation for potential use in growing children requiring radiotherapy to the extremity for malignant tumors.