A central reaction in homologous recombination is synapsis, which involves invasion of duplex DNA by a homologous single strand. A key intermediate in this process is the presynaptic filament, a protein-DNA complex composed of a "strand transferase" polymerized along the invading single strand. In this report, the organization and mechanism of assembly of the bacteriophage T4 presynaptic filament are explored. Three T4 proteins, encoded by the uvsX, uvsY and 32 genes, are involved in this process. It is demonstrated that a well-defined series of events involving multiple protein-DNA and protein-protein interactions is required to mediate a transition from an initial gene 32-DNA complex to a mature presynaptic filament in which the UvsX and UvsY proteins are in contact with the DNA and each other, while most or all of the gene 32 protein is removed from the complex.