The Klenow fragment of Escherichia coli DNA polymerase I houses catalytic centers for both polymerase and 3'-5' exonuclease activities that are separated by about 35 A. Upon the incorporation of a mismatched nucleotide, the primer terminus is transferred from the polymerase site to an exonuclease site designed for excision of the mismatched nucleotides. The structural comparison of the binary complexes of DNA polymerases in the polymerase and the exonuclease modes, together with a molecular modeling of the template strand overhang in Klenow fragment, indicated its binding in the region spanning residues 821-824. Since these residues are conserved in the "A" family DNA polymerases, we have designated this region as the RRRY motif. The alanine substitution of individual amino acid residues of this motif did not change the polymerase activity; however, the 3'-5' exonuclease activity was reduced 2-29-fold, depending upon the site of mutation. The R821A and R822A/Y824A mutant enzymes showed maximum cleavage defect with single-stranded DNA, mainly due to a large decrease in the ssDNA binding affinity of these enzymes. Mismatch removal by these enzymes was only moderately affected. However, data from the exonuclease-polymerase balance assays with mismatched template-primer suggest that the mutant enzymes are defective in switching mismatched primer from the polymerase to the exonuclease site. Thus, the RRRY motif provides a binding track for substrate ssDNA and for nonsubstrate single-stranded template overhang, in a polarity-dependent manner. This binding then facilitates cleavage of the substrate at the exonuclease site.