O4-Alkylthymine-DNA adducts have been implicated as causative lesions in chemical mutagenesis and carcinogenesis. To directly assess the mutagenic potential of these adducts in vivo, we have designed an enzymatic technique for introducing nucleotide analogues at predetermined sites of biologically active DNA. Escherichia coli DNA polymerase I was used in vitro to incorporate a single O4-methylthymine residue at the 3' terminus of an oligonucleotide primer opposite the adenine residue of the amber codon in bacteriophage phi X174 am3 DNA. After further extension of the primer with unmodified nucleotides, the partial-duplex product was transfected into E. coli spheroplasts. Replication of the site-specifically methylated DNA in E. coli deficient in O4-methylthymine-DNA methyltransferase (ada-) yielded 10-fold more mutant progeny phage than replication of nonmethylated DNA; no increase in mutation frequency was observed after replication in repair-proficient (ada+) E. coli. The DNA from 20 independently isolated mutant plaques all contained A.T----G.C transitions at the original site of O4-methylthymine incorporation. These data demonstrate that O4-methylthymine induces base-substitution mutations in E. coli and suggest that this adduct may be involved in mutagenesis by N-nitroso methylating agents. This enzymatic technique for site-specific mutagenesis provides an alternative to the chemical synthesis of oligonucleotides containing altered bases.