We have used Simian virus 40 (SV40) as a probe to study the replication of UV-damaged DNA in mammalian cells. Viral DNA replication in infected monkey kidney cells was synchronized by incubating a mutant of SV40 (tsA58) temperature-sensitive for the initiation of DNA synthesis at the restrictive temperature and then adding aphidicolin to temporarily inhibit DNA synthesis at the permissive temperature while permitting pre-replicative events to occur. After removal of the drug, the infected cells were irradiated at 100 J/m2 (254 nm) to produce 6-7 pyrimidine dimers per SV40 genome, and returned to the restrictive temperature to prevent reinitiation of replication from the SV40 origin. Replicative intermediates (RI) were labeled with [3H]thymidine, and isolated by centrifugation in CsCl/ethidium bromide gradients followed by BND-cellulose chromatography. The size distribution of daughter DNA strands in RI isolated shortly after irradiation was skewed towards lengths less than the interdimer spacing in parental DNA; this bias persisted for at least 1 h after irradiation, but disappeared within 3 h, by which time the size of the newly-synthesized DNA exceeded the interdimer distance. No significant excision of dimers from parental strands in either replicative intermediates or Form I (closed circular) DNA molecules was detected. These data are consistent with the hypothesis that replication forks are temporarily blocked by dimers encountered on the leading strand side of the fork, but that daughter strand continuity opposite dimers is eventually established. Evidence was obtained for the generation at late times after irradiation, of Form I molecules in which the daughter DNA strands contain dimers. Thus DNA strand exchange as well as trans-dimer synthesis may be involved in the generation of supercoiled Form I DNA from UV-damaged SV40 replicative intermediates.