The amino-terminal 8-kDa domain of DNA polymerase beta functions in binding single-stranded DNA (ssDNA), recognition of a 5'-phosphate in gapped DNA structures, and as a 5'-deoxyribose phosphate (dRP) lyase. NMR and x-ray crystal structures of this domain have suggested several residues that may interact with ssDNA or play a role in the dRP lyase reaction. Nine of these residues were altered by site-directed mutagenesis. Each mutant was expressed in Escherichia coli, and the recombinant protein was purified to near homogeneity. CD spectra of these mutant proteins indicated that the alteration did not adversely affect the global protein structure. Single-stranded DNA binding was probed by photochemical cross-linking to oligo(dT)16. Several mutants (F25W, K35A, K60A, and K68A) were impaired in ssDNA binding activity, whereas other mutants (H34G, E71Q, K72A, E75A, and K84A) retained near wild-type binding activity. The 5'-phosphate recognition activity of these mutants was examined by UV cross-linking to a 5-nucleotide gap DNA where the 5' terminus in the gap was either phosphorylated or unphosphorylated. The results indicate that Lys35 is involved in 5'-phosphate recognition of DNA polymerase beta. Finally, the dRP lyase activity of these mutants was evaluated using a preincised apurinic/apyrimidinic DNA. Alanine mutants of Lys35 and Lys60 are significantly reduced in dRP lyase activity, consistent with the lower ssDNA binding activity. More importantly, alanine substitution for Lys72 resulted in a greater than 90% loss of dRP lyase activity, without affecting DNA binding. Alanine mutants of Lys68 and Lys84 had wild-type dRP lyase activity. The triple alanine mutant, K35A/K68A/K72A, was devoid of dRP lyase activity, suggesting that the effects of the alanine substitution at Lys72 and Lys35 were additive. The results suggest that Lys72 is directly involved in formation of a covalent imino intermediate and are consistent with Lys72 as the predominant Schiff base nucleophile in the dRP lyase beta-elimination catalytic reaction.