DNA polymerases catalyze the incorporation of deoxynucleoside triphosphates into a growing DNA chain using a pair of Mg(2+) ions, coordinated at the active site by two invariant aspartates, whose removal by mutation typically reduces the polymerase activity to barely detectable levels. Using two stopped-flow fluorescence assays that we developed previously, we have investigated the role of the carboxylate ligands, Asp(705) and Asp(882), of DNA polymerase I (Klenow fragment) in the early prechemistry steps that prepare the active site for catalysis. We find that neither carboxylate is required for an early conformational transition, reported by a 2-aminopurine probe, that takes place in the open ternary complex after binding of the complementary dNTP. However, the subsequent fingers-closing step requires Asp(882); this step converts the open ternary complex into the closed conformation, creating the active-site geometry required for catalysis. Crystal structures indicate that the Asp(882) position changes very little during fingers-closing; this side chain may therefore serve as an anchor point to receive the dNTP-associated metal ion as the nucleotide is delivered into the active site. The Asp(705) carboxylate is not required until after the fingers-closing step, and we suggest that its role is to facilitate the entry of the second Mg(2+) into the active site. The two early prechemistry steps that we have studied take place normally at very low Mg(2+) concentrations, although higher concentrations are needed for covalent nucleotide addition, consistent with the second metal ion entering the ternary complex after fingers-closing.