The synthesis of an azidoDNA duplex and its use to photolabel DNA polymerases have been previously described (Gibson & Benkovic, 1987). We now present detailed experiments utilizing this azidoDNA photoprobe as a substrate for Escherichia coli DNA polymerase I (Klenow fragment) and the photoaffinity labeling of the protein. The azidoDNA duplex is an efficient substrate for both the polymerase and 3'----5' exonuclease activities of the enzyme. However, the hydrolytic degradation of the azido-bearing base is dramatically impaired. On the basis of the ability of these duplexes to photolabel the enzyme, we have determined that the protein contacts between five and seven bases of duplex DNA. Incubation of azidoDNA with the Klenow fragment in the presence of magnesium results in the in situ formation of a template-primer with the azido-bearing base bound at the polymerase catalytic site of the enzyme. Photolysis of this complex followed by proteolytic digestion and isolation of DNA-labeled peptides results in the identification of a single residue modified by the photoreactive DNA substrate. We identify Tyr766 as the modified amino acid and thus localize the catalytic site for polymerization in the protein. A mansyl-labeled DNA duplex has been prepared as a fluorescent probe of protein structure. This has been utilized to determine the location of the primer terminus when bound to the Klenow fragment. When the duplex contains five unpaired bases in the primer strand of the duplex, the primer terminus resides predominantly at the exonuclease catalytic site of the enzyme. Removal of the mismatched bases by the exonuclease activity of the enzyme yields a binary complex with the primer terminus now bound predominantly at the polymerase active site. Data are presented which suggest that the rate-limiting step in the exonuclease activity of the enzyme is translocation of the primer terminus from polymerase to exonuclease catalytic sites.