The relative positions of components of the DNA-dependent DNA polymerase delta (pol delta).proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA).DNA complex were studied. We have shown that pol delta incorporates nucleotides close to a template biotin-streptavidin complex located 5' (downstream) to the replicating complex in the presence or absence of PCNA. PCNA-dependent synthesis catalyzed by pol delta was nearly totally (95%) inhibited by a biotin. streptavidin complex located at the 3'-end of a template with a 15-mer primer (upstream of the replicating complex), but was only partially inhibited with a 19-mer primer. With either primer, PCNA-independent synthesis was not affected by the biotin. streptavidin complex. Quantification of results with primers of varying length suggested that pol delta interacts with between 8 and 10 nucleotides of duplex DNA immediately proximal to the 3'-OH primer terminus. Using UV photocross-linking, we determined that the 125-kDa subunit of pol delta, but not the 50-kDa subunit, interacted with a photosensitive residue of a substrate oligonucleotide. Interaction apparently takes place through the C terminus of p125. Based on these results, we conclude that PCNA is located "behind" pol delta in the polymerization complex during DNA synthesis and that only the large subunit of pol delta (two-subunit form) interacts directly with DNA. A detailed model of the enzymatically active complex is proposed.