Previous work has described the novel ability to modulate in vitro the activity of restriction endonuclease NaeI from Nocardia aerocoligenes by using cleavable DNA and spermidine [Conrad & Topal (1989) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 86, 9707-9711]. In this paper we report the results of a study of 49 type II restriction enzymes from a variety of bacterial species. On the basis of the rates of cleavage observed, we found that in addition to expected cleavable sites a number of enzymes had slow and resistant cognate recognition sites. Resistant sites were identified for BspMI, NaeI, and NarI; slow sites were identified for HpaII, NaeI, and SacII. Cleavage of these sites was found to be significantly enhanced by the addition of cleavable DNA or spermidine. We demonstrate that for BspMI, as for NaeI, activator DNAs increased Vmax without altering Km, whereas for HpaII, NarI, and SacII activator DNAs decreased Km without changing Vmax. Comparison among the Kms for NaeI cleavage of several different substrates demonstrated that distant DNA sequences can affect DNA recognition by the activated enzyme. Our observations extend DNA activation of the Nocardia NaeI endonuclease to restriction endonucleases from Nocardia argentinensis (NarI), Bacillus species M (BspMI), Haemophilus parainfluenza (HpaII), and Streptomyces achromogenes (SacII). In addition, activation has now been found to affect slow as well as resistant recognition sites.