DNA polymerase alpha-primase is a replication enzyme necessary for DNA replication in all eukaryotes. Mouse DNA primase is composed of two subunits: a 46 kDa protein (p46), which is the catalytic subunit capable of RNA primer synthesis, and a 54 kDa protein (p54), whose physiological role is not clear. To understand the structure-function relationship of DNA primase, we set out to characterize these two subunits individually or in combination using a cDNA expression system in mammalian cultured cells, and determined the subcellular distribution of ectopically expressed DNA primase. The p54 expressed in COS-1 cells after transfection was predominantly localized in the nucleus, whereas p46 was retained in the cytoplasm as shown by indirect immunofluorescence analysis. Using several mutant proteins with deletions or substitutions as well as chimeric constructs, we identified the nuclear localization signal of p54 as RIRKKLR, encoded near the amino terminus (residues 6-12). Furthermore, co-expression of both p46 and p54 subunits markedly altered the subcellular distribution of p46; co-expressed p46 was transported into the nucleus as efficiently as p54. These results demonstrate that p54 has a nuclear localization signal and is able to be translocated into the nucleus independently of DNA polymerase alpha subunits. In contrast, p46 lacks a nuclear localization signal, and its nuclear translocation is facilitated by interaction with p54. We present here first evidence for a novel role of p54 in the nuclear translocation process, and a piggy-back binding transport mechanism of mouse DNA primase.