Substrate-assisted catalysis was suggested to be involved in the DNA cleavage reaction of the restriction endonucleases (ENases) EcoRI and EcoRV, because experimental evidence exists that the phosphate group 3' to the scissile bond serves to deprotonate the attacking water. Here, we have addressed the question whether this is a general mechanistic feature of the reactions catalyzed by ENases. For this purpose, the cleavage rates of modified and unmodified oligodeoxyribonucleotides (oligos), in which the phosphate group 3' to the scissile bond is substituted by a methyl phosphonate, were measured for 17 enzymes. Only five turned out not to be inhibited by this modification (BglII, BstI, BstYI, Cfr10I and MunI); all others cleave the modified substrate at a strongly reduced rate or not at all. By employing a hemisubstituted oligo substrate we were able to further investigate the mechanism of inhibition of the latter group of ENases. Some of them cleave the unmodified strand of the modified substrate with a nearly unaltered rate, whereas the modified strand is cleaved very slowly or not at all (BamHI, Bsp143I, Eco72I, MflI, NdeII, Sau3AI, XhoII). The others (AluI, Cfr9I, DpnII, MboI, PvuII) cleave the modified strand of the modified substrate with a largely reduced rate or not at all. These ENases, however, cleave the unmodified strand with a reduced rate, too. Based on these results we conclude that BamHI, Bsp143I, Cfr9I, DpnII, Eco72I, MboI, MflI, NdeII, PvuII, Sau3AI and XhoII may possibly employ substrate assistance in catalysis.