The sequence Gly-Asp-Met-Asp, spanning positions 189-192 of rat DNA polymerase beta, is similar to the sequence motif Gly-Asp-Thr-Asp that is highly conserved in a number of replicative DNA polymerases from eukaryotic cells, viruses, and phages. The role of this sequence in the catalytic function of rat DNA polymerase beta was investigated by individually changing each amino acid in this region by site-directed mutagenesis. The mutant enzymes DE190 and DE192, in which aspartic acid residues at positions 190 and 192, respectively, were replaced by glutamic acid, showed about 0.1% activity of the wild-type enzyme. On the other hand, the replacement of Gly-189 by alanine or Met-191 by isoleucine or threonine only slightly affected the enzyme activity. A gel mobility shift assay showed that DNA complexes with enzyme DE190 and especially with DE192 were less stable than the corresponding complex with the wild-type enzyme. Kinetic analysis with these mutant enzymes indicate that their Km's for primer DNA were about 10-fold higher than that of the wild type, while Km's for deoxyribonucleoside triphosphate were not changed. Since neither DE190 nor DE192 had any significant alteration in secondary structure, our results suggest that both Asp-190 and Asp-192 are located in the active site and are involved in the interaction of DNA polymerase beta with primer.