The strand specificity of topoisomerase II mediated DNA cleavage was analyzed at the nucleotide level by characterizing the enzyme's interaction with a strong DNA recognition site. This site was isolated from the promoter region of the extrachromosomal rRNA genes of Tetrahymena thermophila and was recognized by type II topoisomerases from a variety of phylogenetically diverse eukaryotic organisms, including Drosophila, Tetrahymena, and calf thymus. When incubated with this site, topoisomerase II was found to introduce single-stranded breaks (i.e., nicks) in addition to double-stranded breaks in the nucleic acid backbone. Although the nucleotide position of cleavage on both the noncoding and coding strands of the rDNA remained unchanged, the relative ratios of single- and double-stranded DNA breaks could be varied by altering reaction conditions. Under all conditions which promoted topoisomerase II mediated DNA nicking, the enzyme displayed a 3-10-fold specificity for cleavage at the noncoding strand of its recognition site. To determine whether this specificity of topoisomerase II was due to a faster forward rate of cleavage of the noncoding strand or a slower rate of its religation, a DNA religation assay was performed. Results indicated that both the noncoding and coding strands were religated by the enzyme at approximately the same rate. Therefore, the DNA strand preference of topoisomerase II appears to be embodied in the enzyme's forward cleavage reaction.