Time-resolved fluorescence spectroscopy was used to investigate the influence of sequence-directed DNA structure upon the interaction between the Klenow fragment of DNA polymerase I and a series of defined oligonucleotide primer/templates. 17/27-mer (primer/template) oligonucleotides containing a dansyl fluorophore conjugated to a modified deoxyuridine residue within the primer strand were used as substrates for binding to Klenow fragment. The time-resolved fluorescence anisotropy decay of the dansyl probe was analyzed in terms of two local environments, either solvent-exposed or buried, corresponding to primer/templates positioned with the primer 3' terminus in the polymerase site or the 3'-5' exonuclease site of the enzyme, respectively. Equilibrium constants for partitioning of DNA between the two sites were evaluated from the anisotropy decay data for primer/templates having different (A + T)-rich sequences flanking the primer 3' terminus. Primer/templates with AAAATG/TTTTAC and CGATAT/GCTATA terminal sequences (the nucleotides on the left refer to the last six bases at the 3' end of the primer, and the nucleotides on the right are the corresponding bases in the template) were bound mostly at the polymerase site. The introduction of single mismatches opposite the primer 3' terminus of these DNA substrates increased their partitioning into the 3'-5' exonuclease site, in accord with the results of an earlier study [Carver, T.E., Hochstrasser, R.A., and Millar, D.P. (1994) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 91, 10670-10674]. In contrast, a primer/template with the terminal sequence CAATTT/GTTAAA, containing an A-tract element AATTT, exhibited a surprising preference for binding at the 3'-5' exonuclease site, despite the absence of mismatched bases in the DNA substrate. Interruption of the A-tract with a single AG step, to give the terminal sequence CAGTTT/GTCAAA, reversed the effect of the A-tract, causing the DNA to partition in favor of the polymerase site. Moreover, the presence of a single mismatch opposite the primer 3' terminus was also sufficient to reverse the effect of the A-tract, resulting in a distribution of DNA between polymerase and 3'-5' exonuclease sites that was similar to that observed for the other mismatched DNA substrates. Taken together, these results suggest that the A-tract adopts an unusual conformation that is disruptive to binding at the polymerase site. The effect of the A-tract on binding of DNA to the polymerase site is discussed in terms of the unusual helix structural parameters associated with these sequence elements and the difference between the local geometry of the A-tract and the conformation adopted by duplex DNA within the polymerase cleft. The results of this study show that in addition to base mismatches, Klenow fragment can also recognize irregularities in the helix geometry of perfectly base-paired DNA.