Parvoviral DNA replication has many features in common with prokaryotic rolling circle replication (RCR), including the pivotal role of an initiator protein which introduces a site-specific, single strand nick into a duplex origin sequence. In this process, the protein becomes covalently attached to the new 5' end of the DNA, while making available a 3' hydroxyl to prime de novo synthesis. Sequence comparisons of prokaryotic RCR initiators has revealed a set of three common motifs, two of which, a putative metal coordination site and a downstream active-site tyrosine motif, could be tentatively identified in parvoviral replicator proteins. We have introduced mutations into the NS1 gene of the murine parvovirus minute virus of mice (MVM), in the putative metal coordination site at H129, and into the three candidate tyrosine motifs at Y188, Y197, and Y210. Histidine-tagged mutant proteins were expressed in HeLa cells from recombinant vaccinia virus vectors and partially purified. None of the mutant proteins were able to initiate replication of origin-containing plasmids in vitro, and each showed impaired site-specific binding to the viral origin, with Y188 and Y197 being most severely defective. If this deficiency was minimized using low salt conditions, however, Y188 and Y197 mutant proteins were able to nick and become covalently attached to origin DNA, whereas Y210 and H129 mutant proteins were not, suggesting that the latter residues are part of the catalytic site of the NS1 nickase. Transfer of [32P]phosphate from substrate DNA to NS1, followed by cyanogen bromide cleavage of the complex, gave the single, labeled peptide consistent with Y210 being the linking tyrosine.