The ATPase activity of the DNA packaging protein gp16 (gene product 16) of bacteriophage phi 29 was studied in the completely defined in-vitro assembly system. ATP was hydrolyzed to ADP and Pi in the packaging reaction that included purified proheads, DNA-gp3 and gp16. Approximately one molecule of ATP was used in the packaging of 2 base-pairs of phi 29 DNA, or 9 X 10(3) ATP molecules per virion. The hydrolysis of ATP by gp16 was both prohead and DNA-gp3 dependent. gp16 contained both the "A-type" and the "B-type" ATP-binding consensus sequences (Walker et al., 1982) and the predicted secondary structure for ATP binding. The A-type sequence of gp16 was "basic-hydrophobic region-G-X2-G-X-G-K-S-X7-hydrophobic", and similar sequences were found in the phage DNA packaging proteins gpA of lambda, gp19 of T7 and gp17 of T4. Having both the ATP-binding and potential magnesium-binding domains, all of these proteins probably function as ATPases and may have common prohead-binding capabilities. The phi 29 protein gp3, covalently bound to the DNA, may be analogous in function to proteins gpNul of lambda and gpl of phi 21 that bind the DNA.