Measurements of diffusion of molecules in cells can provide information about cytoplasmic viscosity and structure. In a series of studies electron-spin resonance was used to measure the diffusion of a small spin label in the aqueous cytoplasm of mammalian cells. Translational and rotational motion were determined from the same spectra. Based on measurements made in model systems, it was hypothesized that calculations of the apparent viscosity of the cytoplasm from both rotational and translational motion would distinguish between the effects of viscosity and structure on diffusion. The diffusion constant measured in several cell lines averaged 3.3 X 10(-6) cm2/s. It was greater in growing cells and in cells treated with cytochalasin B than in quiescent cells. The viscosity of the cytoplasm calculated from the translational diffusion constant or the rotational correlation time was 2.0-3.0 centipoise, about two to three times that of the spin label in water. Therefore, over the dimensions measured by the technique, 50-100 A, solvent viscosity appears to be the major determinant of particle movement in cells under physiologic conditions. However, when cells were subjected to hypertonic conditions, the translational motion of the spin label decreased threefold, whereas the rotational motion changed by less than 20%. These data suggest that the decrease in cell volume under hypertonic conditions is accompanied by an increase in cytoplasmic barriers and a decrease in the space between existing cytoplasmic components without a significant increase in viscosity in the aqueous phase. In addition, a comparison of reported diffusion values of a variety of molecules in water and in cells indicates that cytoplasmic structure plays an important role in the diffusion of proteins such as bovine serum albumin.