Tumor development is characterized by accumulation of mutations. Such mutations, if induced by carcinogens in DNA polymerase genes, would confer mutator properties on the DNA replication machinery, even at later stages of development. To investigate whether DNA polymerase delta can be mutated, we compared these enzymes from highly malignant Novikoff hepatoma cells and from regenerating normal rat liver. We sequenced the DNA polymerase delta cDNA from both sources and investigated the physico-chemical properties, inhibition characteristics, and copying fidelity of the purified enzymes. The cDNA sequences examined included the entire reading frame encoding the catalytic subunit (subunit I) of DNA polymerase delta. First-strand cDNAs were prepared from total RNA of both normal rat liver and Novikoff cells by reverse transcription, and the polymerase delta sequences were amplified by the polymerase chain reaction. cDNA (3325 bp) were sequenced. A single heterozygous mutation (CGG --> CAG) has been detected in nucleotide position 1948 (codon 648) of the polymerase delta gene from Novikoff cells, resulting in an Arg to Gln change. Position 648 lies just proximal to the conserved region VI, which is part of the "fingers" subdomain of alpha-like polymerases. This subdomain is involved in dNTP binding. Upon comparison of biochemical characteristics of partially purified DNA polymerase delta from both Novikoff cells and rat liver, the following properties of the enzyme from Novikoff cells were found to be altered: (i) K(50) values for nucleotide analogs (e.g. butylphenyl-dGTP) were lower, (ii) sensitivity to various antineoplastic drugs (e.g. doxorubicin, topotecan and distamycin) was enhanced, (iii) copying fidelity was decreased when primer templates containing O(6)-methylguanine were used, and (iv) the activity of DNA polymerase delta from Novikoff tumor cells was less stimulated by lactate dehydrogenase than the enzyme from normal cells. The altered biochemical characteristics of DNA polymerase delta from Novikoff cells suggest mutator properties. We conclude that the point mutation detected in the cDNA might be causally related to the observed changes in inhibition characteristics and copying fidelity.