Gene amplification in human tumor cells is frequently mediated by extrachromosomal elements (e.g., double minute chromosomes [DMs]). Recent experiments have shown that DMs can be formed from smaller, submicroscopic circular precursors referred to as episomes (S. M. Carroll, M. L. DeRose, P. Gaudray, C. M. Moore, D. R. Needham-Vandevanter, D. D. Von Hoff and G. M. Wahl, Mol. Biol. 8:1525-1533, 1988). To investigate whether episomes are generally involved as intermediates in gene amplification, we determined whether they mediate the amplification of the mdr1 gene, which when overexpressed engenders cross resistance to multiple lipophilic drugs. A variety of methods including electrophoresis of undigested DNAs in high-voltage gradients, NotI digestion, and production of double-strand breaks by gamma irradiation were used to distinguish between mdr1 sequences amplified on submicroscopic circular molecules and those amplified within DMs or chromosomal DNA. The gamma-irradiation procedure provides a new method for detecting and determining the size of circular molecules from 50 kilobases (kb) to greater than 1,000 kb. These methods revealed that some of the amplified mdr1 genes in vinblastine-resistant KB-V1 cells are contained in supercoiled circular molecules of approximately 600 and approximately 750 kb. Analysis of the replication of these molecules by a Meselson-Stahl density shift experiment demonstrated that they replicate approximately once in a cell cycle. The data lend further support to a model for gene amplification in which DMs are generally formed from smaller, autonomously replicating precursors.