To gain more detailed insight into the nature and mechanisms of spontaneous mutations, we undertook a DNA sequence analysis of a large collection of spontaneous mutations in the N-terminal region of the Escherichia coli lacI gene. This region of circa 210 base pairs is the target for dominant lacI mutations (i-d) and is suitable for studies of mutational specificity since it contains a relatively high density of detectable mutable sites. Among 414 independent i-d mutants, 70.8% were base substitutions, 17.2% deletions, 7.7% additions and 4.3% single-base frameshifts. The base substitutions were both transitions (60%) and transversions (40%), the largest single group being G.C----A.T (47% of base substitutions). All four transversions were observed. Among the 71 deletions, a hotspot (37 mutants) was present: an 87-bp deletion presumably directed by an 8-bp repeated sequence at its endpoints. The remaining 34 deletions were distributed among 29 different mutations, either flanked (13/34) or not flanked (21/34) by repeated sequences. The 32 additions comprised 29 different events, with only two containing a direct repeat at the endpoints. The single-base frameshifts were the loss of a single base from either repeated (67%) or nonrepeated (33%) bases. A comparison with the spectrum obtained previously in strains defective in DNA mismatch correction (mutH, mutL, mutS strains) yielded information about the apparent efficiency of mismatch repair. The overall effect was 260-fold but varied substantially among different classes of mutations. An interesting asymmetry was uncovered for the two types of transitions, A.T----G.C and G.C----A.T being reduced by mismatch repair 1340- and 190-fold, respectively. Explanations for this asymmetry and its possible implications for the origins of spontaneous mutations are discussed.