Site-directed mutagenesis and time-resolved fluorescence spectroscopy were used to evaluate the contributions of individual amino acid side chains to the binding of DNA primer-templates to the 3'-5' exonuclease site of the large proteolytic fragment (Klenow fragment) of DNA polymerase I. Mutations were introduced into side chains that have been shown crystallographically to be in close proximity to a DNA 3' terminus bound at the 3'-5' exonuclease site. The wild-type residues were replaced by alanine in each case. To assess the effects of the mutations on DNA binding, time-resolved fluorescence anisotropy measurements were performed on dansyl-labeled primer-templates bound to the mutant enzymes. In contrast to techniques that simply monitor the overall binding of proteins to DNA, the time-resolved fluorescence anisotropy technique was used to determine the fractional occupancies of the polymerase and 3'-5' exonuclease active sites of Klenow fragment. Equilibrium constants describing the partitioning of DNA between the two active sites were obtained for nine different mutant enzymes bound to both matched and mismatched DNA sequences. Mutations of Leu361 and Phe473 caused the largest effects, significantly destabilizing the binding of mismatched DNA substrates to the 3'-5' exonuclease site relative to DNA bound at the polymerase site, consistent with structural data showing that the side chains of these residues are involved in intimate hydrophobic interactions with the 3' terminal and penultimate bases of the primer strand [Beese, L., and Steitz, T. A. (1991) EMBO J. 10, 25-33]. Mutations of the His660 and Glu357 side chains also resulted in significant effects on the binding of mismatched DNA to the 3'-5' exonuclease site. Surprisingly, mutation of Tyr497 increased the partitioning of mismatched DNA into the 3'-5' exonuclease site, suggesting that the tyrosine side chain in the wildtype enzyme destabilizes substrate binding, despite crystallographic data showing that Tyr497 is H-bonded to the DNA substrate. The effects of mutating the amino acid side chains that serve as ligands to two divalent metal ions bound at the 3'-5' exonuclease site, designated A and B, indicated that metal A also helps to bind DNA to the 3'-5' exonuclease site. These results demonstrate that the time-resolved fluorescence anisotropy technique can be used to quantify the energetic contributions associated with each of the crystallographically defined DNA-protein contacts at the 3'-5' exonuclease site.