DNA from cultured Chinese hamster cells has been fractionated to yield a population of DNA enriched for replicating molecules. Molecules containing replication structures were analyzed by electron microscopy, and replicon size was estimated. The enrichment procedure takes advantage of single-stranded regions characteristic of replicating molecules, and the greater affinity of mercuric ion for single-stranded rather than native DNA. After interaction with low concentrations of HgCl2, DNA with bound mercury is separated from the bulk of the DNA by virtue of its increased buoyant density in an isopycnic Cs2SO4 gradient. When DNA from cells labeled with [3H]thymidine for 45 s is interacted with HgCl2 and banded in Cs2SO4, the DNA with the highest specific activity is found in a dense region of the gradient. The high specific activity DNA behaves kinetically like nascent DNA since the radioactivity can be chased into main band if the cells are incubated for a further 2 h in excess unlabeled thymidine. Electron microscope analysis of the DNA in the enriched fraction confirmed that it contains a substantial fraction of molecules with replication structures. The level of enrichment is about 25-fold compared to unfractionated DNA or DNA taken from the main band of the Hg++/Cs2SO4 gradient. Of the replicating molecules visualized, 85% possessed a single replication structure. All molecules with multiple replication forms contained replicon sizes less than 5 micron, ranging from 0.2 to 4.5 micron. Replicon size was determined by measuring the distance from the center of one replication structure to the center of the adjacent replication structure on the same molecule. The replicons observed in this study are far smaller than can be detected by DNA fiber autoradiography and are in the same size range as the very small replication units reported in embryonic systems.

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