The site and sequence specificity of the daunomycin-DNA interaction was examined by equilibrium binding methods, by deoxyribonuclease I footprinting studies, and by examination of the effect of the antibiotic on the cleavage of linearized pBR322 DNA by restriction endonucleases PvuI and EcoRI. These three experimental approaches provide mutually consistent results showing that daunomycin indeed recognizes specific sites along the DNA lattice. The affinity of daunomycin toward natural DNA increases with increasing GC content. The quantitative results are most readily explained by binding models in which daunomycin interacts with sites containing two adjacent GC base pairs, possibly occurring as part of a triplet recognition sequence. Deoxyribonuclease I footprinting studies utilizing the 160 base pair (bp) tyrT DNA fragment and 61 and 53 bp restriction fragments isolated from pBR322 DNA further define the sequence specificity of daunomycin binding. Specific, reproducible protection patterns were obtained for each DNA fragment at 4 degrees C. Seven protected sequences, ranging in size from 4 to 14 bp, were identified within the tyrT fragment. Relative to the overall tyrT sequence, these protected sequences were GC rich and contained a more limited and distinct distribution of di- and trinucleotides. Within all of the protected sequences, a triplet containing adjacent GC base pairs flanked by an AT base pair could be found in one or more copies. Nowhere in the tyrT fragment did that triplet occur outside a protected sequence. The same triplet occurred within seven out of nine protected sequences observed in the fragments isolated from pBR322 DNA. In the two remaining cases, three contiguous GC base pairs were found. We conclude that the preferred daunomycin triplet binding site contains adjacent GC base pairs, of variable sequence, flanked by an AT base pair. This conclusion is consistent with the results of a recent theoretical study of daunomycin sequence specificity [Chen, K.-X., Gresh, N., & Pullman, B. (1985) J. Biomol. Struct. Dyn. 3, 445-466]. Adriamycin and the beta-anomer of adriamycin produce the same qualitative pattern of protection as daunomycin with the tyrT fragment. Daunomycin inhibits the rate of digestion of pBR322 DNA by PvuI (recognition sequence 5'-CGATCG-3') to a greater extent than it does EcoRI (recognition sequence 5'-GAATTC-3'), a finding consistent with the conclusions derived from our footprinting studies. Our results, as a whole, are the clearest indication to date that daunomycin recognizes a specific DNA sequence as a preferred binding site.