Based on previous in vivo genetic analysis of bacteriophage lambda growth, we have developed two in vitro lambda DNA replication systems composed entirely of purified proteins. One is termed 'grpE-independent' and consists of supercoiled lambda dv plasmid DNA, the lambda O and lambda P proteins, as well as the Escherichia coli dnaK, dnaJ, dnaB, dnaG, ssb, DNA gyrase and DNA polymerase III holoenzyme proteins. The second system includes the E.coli grpE protein and is termed 'grpE-dependent'. Both systems are specific for plasmid molecules carrying the ori lambda DNA initiation site. The major difference in the two systems is that the 'grpE-independent' system requires at least a 10-fold higher level of dnaK protein compared with the grpE-dependent one. The lambda DNA replication process may be divided into several discernible steps, some of which are defined by the isolation of stable intermediates. The first is the formation of a stable ori lambda-lambda O structure. The second is the assembly of a stable ori lambda-lambda O-lambda P-dnaB complex. The addition of dnaJ to this complex also results in an isolatable intermediate. The dnaK, dnaJ and grpE proteins destabilize the lambda P-dnaB interaction, thus liberating dnaB's helicase activity, resulting in unwinding of the DNA template. At this stage, a stable DNA replication intermediate can be isolated, provided that the grpE protein has acted and/or is present. Following this, the dnaG primase enzyme recognizes the single-stranded DNA-dnaB complex and synthesizes RNA primers. Subsequently, the RNA primers are extended into DNA by DNA polymerase III holoenzyme. The proposed model of the molecular series of events taking place at ori lambda is substantiated by the many demonstrable protein-protein interactions among the various participants.