Cloning DNA typically involves the joining of target DNAs with vector constructs by enzymatic ligation. A commonly used enzyme for this reaction is bacteriophage T4 DNA ligase, which requires ATP as the energy source to catalyze the otherwise unfavorable formation of a phosphodiester bond. Using in vitro selection, we have isolated a DNA sequence that catalyzes the ligation of DNA in the absence of protein enzymes. We have used the action of two catalytic DNAs, an ATP-dependent self-adenylating deoxyribozyme (AppDNA) and a self-ligating deoxyribozyme, to create a ligation system that covalently joins oligonucleotides via the formation of a 3',5'-phosphodiester linkage. The two-step process is conducted in separate reaction vessels wherein the products of deoxyribozyme adenylation are purified before their use as substrates for deoxyribozyme ligation. The final ligation step of the deoxyribozyme-catalyzed sequence of reactions mimics the final step of the T4 DNA ligase reaction. The initial rate constant (k(obs)) of the optimized deoxyribozyme ligase was found to be 1 x 10(-)(4) min(-)(1). Under these conditions, the ligase deoxyribozyme promotes DNA ligation at least 10(5)-fold faster than that generated by a simple DNA template. The self-ligating deoxyribozyme has also been reconfigured to generate a trans-acting construct that joins separate DNA oligonucleotides of defined sequence. However, the sequence requirements of the AppDNA and that of the 3' terminus of the deoxyribozyme ligase limit the range of sequences that can be ligated.