We have determined the domains of the mammalian high mobility group (HMG)I chromosomal proteins necessary and sufficient for binding to the narrow minor groove of stretches of A.T-rich DNA. Three highly conserved regions within each of the known HMG-I proteins is closely related to the consensus sequence T-P-K-R-P-R-G-R-P-K-K. A synthetic oligopeptide corresponding to this consensus "binding domain" (BD) sequence specifically binds to substrate DNA in a manner similar to the intact HMG-I proteins. Molecular Corey-Pauling-Koltun model building and computer simulations employing energy minimization programs to predict structure suggest that the consensus BD peptide has a secondary structure similar to the antitumor and antiviral drugs netropsin and distamycin and to the dye Hoechst 33258. In vitro these ligands, which also preferentially bind to A.T-rich DNA, have been demonstrated to effectively compete with both the BD peptide and the HMG-I proteins for DNA binding. The BD peptide also contains novel structural features such as a predicted Asx bend or "hook" at its amino-terminal end and laterally projecting cationic Arg/Lys side chains or "bristles" which may contribute to the binding properties of the HMG-I proteins. The predicted BD peptide structure, which we refer to as the "A.T-hook," represents a previously undescribed DNA-binding motif capable of binding to the minor groove of stretches of A.T base pairs.