The sequence and structural selectivity of 15 different DNA binding agents was explored using a novel, thermodynamically rigorous, competition dialysis procedure. In the competition dialysis method, 13 different nucleic acid structures were dialyzed against a common ligand solution. More ligand accumulated in the dialysis tube containing the structural form with the highest ligand binding affinity. DNA structural forms included in the assay ranged from single-stranded forms, through a variety of duplex forms, to multistranded triplex and tetraplex forms. Left-handed Z-DNA, RNA, and a DNA-RNA hybrid were also represented. Standard intercalators (ethidium, daunorubicin, and actinomycin D) served as control compounds and were found to show structural binding preferences fully consistent with their previously published behavior. Standard groove binding agents (DAPI, distamycin, and netropsin) showed a strong preference for AT-rich duplex DNA forms, along with apparently strong binding to the poly(dA)-[poly(dT)](2) triplex. Thermal denaturation studies revealed the apparent triplex binding to be complex, and perhaps to result from displacement of the third strand. Putative triplex (BePI, coralyne, and berberine) and tetraplex [H(2)TmPyP, 5,10,15, 20-tetrakis[4-(trimethylammonio)phenyl]-21H,23H-porphine, and N-methyl mesoporphyrin IX] selective agents showed in many cases less dramatic binding selectivity than anticipated from published reports that compared their binding to only a few structural forms. Coralyne was found to bind strongly to single-stranded poly(dA), a novel and previously unreported interaction. Finally, three compounds (berenil, chromomycin A, and pyrenemethylamine) whose structural preferences are largely unknown were examined. Pyrenemethylamine exhibited an unexpected and unprecedented preference for duplex poly(dAdT).