We have investigated the capacity of a murine cell line with a temperature-sensitive (ts) mutation in the DNA polymerase alpha (Pola) locus and a series of ts non-Pola mutant cell lines from separate complementation groups to stimulate DNA synthesis, in senescent fibroblast nuclei in heterokaryons. In the Pola mutant x senescent heterodikaryons, both human and murine nuclei display significantly diminished levels of DNA synthesis at the restrictive temperature (39.5 degrees C) as determined by [3H]thymidine labeling in autoradiographs. In contrast, all of the non-Pola mutants, as well as the parental (wild type) murine cells, induced similar levels of DNA synthesis in both parental nuclei at the nonpermissive and permissive temperatures. Similarly, young human fibroblasts are also able to initiate DNA synthesis in heterokaryons with the ts Pola mutant at the two temperatures. In order to determine if complementation of the non-Pola mutants requires induction of serum responsive factors in the senescent cells, fusion studies of similar design were conducted with young and old human fibroblasts incubated in low serum (0.2%) for 48 hr prior to and after cell fusion. Again, a diminished level of DNA synthesis was observed at 39.5 degrees C in the Pola mutant x senescent cell heterokaryons. In these low-serum studies, both parental nuclei in the Pola x young cell heterokaryons and the human nuclei in heterokaryons with one of the non-Pola mutants (FT107) also displayed diminished levels of DNA synthetic activity. All of the other mutants are able to support similar levels of synthetic activity at both temperatures in the presence of reduced serum. The nature of the mutation in three of the non-Pola lines has not been determined but, like the Pola mutant cells, are inhibited in the G1 phase of the cell cycle when incubated at the nonpermissive temperature (39.5 degrees C). The fourth non-Pola mutant line is known to have at least one ts mutation in the cdc2 gene and is inhibited in the G2 phase when exposed to 39.5 degrees C. These results suggest that there may be a functional deficiency of pol alpha in senescent human fibroblasts, and this replication factor may be one of the rate-limiting factors involved in loss of the capacity to initiate DNA synthesis in senescent cells.