The cycling time of DNA polymerase III holoenzyme during replication of UV-irradiated single-stranded (ss) DNA was longer than with unirradiated DNA (8 versus 3 min, respectively), most likely due to slow dissociation from lesion-terminated nascent DNA strands. Initiation of elongation on primed ssDNA was not significantly inhibited by the presence of UV lesions as indicated by the identical distribution of replication products synthesized at early and late reaction times and by the identical duration of the initial synthesis bursts on both unirradiated and UV-irradiated DNA templates. When replication was performed with DNA polymerase III* supplemented with increasing quantities of purified beta 2 subunit, the cycling time on UV-irradiated DNA decreased from 14.8 min at 1.7 nM beta 2 down to 6 min at 170 nM beta 2, a concentration in which beta 2 was in large excess over the polymerase. In parallel to the reduction in cycling time, also the bypass frequency of cyclobutane-photodimers decreased with increasing beta 2 concentration, and at 170 nM beta 2, bypass of photodimers was essentially eliminated. It has been shown that polymerase complexes with more than one beta 2 per polymerase molecule were formed at high beta 2 concentrations (Lasken, R. S., and Kornberg, A. (1987) J. Biol. Chem. 262, 1720-1724). It is plausible that polymerase complexes obtained under high beta 2 concentration dissociate from lesion-terminated primers faster than polymerase complexes formed at a low beta 2 concentration. This is expected to favor termination over bypass at pyrimidine photodimers and thus decrease their bypass frequency. These results suggest that the beta 2 subunit might act as a sensor for obstacles to replication caused by DNA damage, and that it terminates elongation at these sites by promoting dissociation. The intracellular concentration of beta 2 was estimated to be 250 nM (Kwon-Shin, O., Bodner, J. B., McHenry, C. S., and Bambara, R. A. (1987) J. Biol. Chem. 262, 2121-2130) and is 15-fold higher than the estimated intracellular concentration of DNA polymerase III holoenzyme (15 nM). This high concentration of beta 2 may be responsible for the observation that very little (if any) bypass of pyrimidine photodimers occurred in vivo when the SOS system was not induced. Moreover, it predicts that bypass synthesis under SOS conditions might be associated with an altered form of the beta subunit.