We describe an assay for determining the frequency and specificity of mutations occurring at hot spots within a population of DNA molecules. The procedure consists of (a) annealing the DNA population with a labeled oligonucleotide designed to prime DNA synthesis at the mutational hot spot; (b) DNA elongation in the presence of a single dideoxynucleoside triphosphate together with 1-3 deoxynucleoside triphosphates, and (c) quantitation of all limit elongation products by high-resolution gel electrophoresis followed by autoradiography and computing densitometry. Derivation of mutational frequency and specificity over a wide range of values is demonstrated for M13 viral DNA mixtures containing defined proportions of wild-type and mutant DNAs, as well as for M13 viral DNA populations obtained by transfection of DNA bearing a defined site-specific ethenocytosine lesion. The assay is shown to yield results similar to those obtained by laborious clone-by-clone sequencing of viral progeny. The method is not affected significantly by several tested variables and appears to be suitable for use as a quantitative assay for sequence microheterogeneity at defined positions within DNA populations. Application of the methodology demonstrates that ethenocytosine, an exocyclic DNA lesion induced by carcinogens such as vinyl chloride and urethane, is a highly efficient mutagenic lesion with a mutational specificity expected for noninstructive lesions.