Purified RecA protein from Escherichia coli inhibited 5-10-fold the rate of in vitro replication of both unirradiated and UV-irradiated single-stranded DNA (ssDNA) with DNA polymerase III holoenzyme. Maximal inhibition occurred at a ratio of 1 molecule of RecA per 2-4 nucleotides of DNA, and it affected primarily the initiation of elongation on primed ssDNA. Adding single-strand DNA-binding protein (SSB) caused a relief of inhibition. Under conditions when there was enough SSB to cover the ssDNA completely, RecA protein had no effect on initiation, elongation or dissociation steps of replication. These observations together with data from in vivo studies suggest a role for RecA protein in the arrest of DNA replication observed in cells exposed to UV-radiation and a variety of chemical carcinogens.