We have initiated the characterization of the DNA helicases from HeLa cells, and we have observed at least 4 molecular species as judged by their different fractionation properties. One of these only, DNA helicase I, has been purified to homogeneity and characterized. Helicase activity was measured by assaying the unwinding of a radioactively labelled oligodeoxynucleotide (17 mer) annealed to M13 DNA. The apparent molecular weight of helicase I on SDS polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis is 65 kDa. Helicase I reaction requires a divalent cation for activity (Mg2+ greater than Mn2+ greater than Ca2+) and is dependent on hydrolysis of ATP or dATP. CTP, GTP, UTP, dCTP, dGTP, dTTP, ADP, AMP and non-hydrolyzable ATP analogues such as ATP gamma S are unable to sustain helicase activity. The helicase activity has an optimal pH range between pH8.0 to pH9.0, is stimulated by KCl or NaCl up to 200mM, is inhibited by potassium phosphate (100mM) and by EDTA (5mM), and is abolished by trypsin. The unwinding is also inhibited competitively by the coaddition of single stranded DNA. The purified fraction was free of DNA topoisomerase, DNA ligase and nuclease activities. The direction of unwinding reaction is 3' to 5' with respect to the strand of DNA on which the enzyme is bound. The enzyme also catalyses the ATP-dependent unwinding of a DNA:RNA hybrid consisting of a radioactively labelled single stranded oligodeoxynucleotide (18 mer) annealed on a longer RNA strand. The enzyme does not require a single stranded DNA tail on the displaced strand at the border of duplex regions; i.e. a replication fork-like structure is not required to perform DNA unwinding. The purification of the other helicases is in progress.