The Escherichia coli chromosomal replicase, DNA polymerase III holoenzyme, is highly processive during DNA synthesis. Underlying high processivity is a ring-shaped protein, the beta clamp, that encircles DNA and slides along it, thereby tethering the enzyme to the template. The beta clamp is assembled onto DNA by the multiprotein gamma complex clamp loader that opens and closes the beta ring around DNA in an ATP-dependent manner. This study examines the DNA structure required for clamp loading action. We found that the gamma complex assembles beta onto supercoiled DNA (replicative form I), but only at very low ionic strength, where regions of unwound DNA may exist in the duplex. Consistent with this, the gamma complex does not assemble beta onto relaxed closed circular DNA even at low ionic strength. Hence, a 3'-end is not required for clamp loading, but a single-stranded DNA (ssDNA)/double-stranded DNA (dsDNA) junction can be utilized as a substrate, a result confirmed using synthetic oligonucleotides that form forked ssDNA/dsDNA junctions on M13 ssDNA. On a flush primed template, the gamma complex exhibits polarity; it acts specifically at the 3'-ssDNA/dsDNA junction to assemble beta onto the DNA. The gamma complex can assemble beta onto a primed site as short as 10 nucleotides, corresponding to the width of the beta ring. However, a protein block placed closer than 14 base pairs (bp) upstream from the primer 3' terminus prevents the clamp loading reaction, indicating that the gamma complex and its associated beta clamp interact with approximately 14-16 bp at a ssDNA/dsDNA junction during the clamp loading operation. A protein block positioned closer than 20-22 bp from the 3' terminus prevents use of the clamp by the polymerase in chain elongation, indicating that the polymerase has an even greater spatial requirement than the gamma complex on the duplex portion of the primed site for function with beta. Interestingly, DNA secondary structure elements placed near the 3' terminus impose similar steric limits on the gamma complex and polymerase action with beta. The possible biological significance of these structural constraints is discussed.