The interaction of a fluorescent duplex DNA oligomer with the Klenow fragment of DNA polymerase I from Escherichia coli has been studied in solution by using time-resolved fluorescence spectroscopy. An aminonaphthalenesulfonate (dansyl) fluorescent probe was linked by a propyl chain to a C5-modified uridine base located at a specific site in the primer strand of the DNA oligomer. The fluorescent oligomer bound tightly to the Klenow fragment (KD = 7.9 nM), and the probe's position within the DNA-protein complex was varied by stepwise elongation of the primer strand upon addition of the appropriate deoxynucleoside triphosphates. The decay of the total fluorescence intensity and the polarization anisotropy were measured with a picosecond laser and a time-correlated single photon counting system. The fluorescence lifetimes, the correlation time for internal rotation, and the angular range of internal rotation varied according to the probe's position within the DNA-protein complex. These results showed that five or six bases of the primer strand upstream of the 3' terminus were in contact with the protein and that within this contact region there were differences in the degree of solvent accessibility and the closeness of contact. Further, a minor binding mode of the DNA-protein complex was identified, on the basis of heterogeneity of the probe environment observed when the probe was positioned seven bases upstream from the primer 3' terminus, which resulted in a distinctive "dip and rise" in the anisotropy decay. Experiments with an epoxy-terminated DNA oligomer and a site-directed mutant protein established that the labeled DNA was binding at the polymerase active site (major form) and at the spatially distinct 3'----5' exonuclease active site (minor form). The abundance of each of these distinct binding modes of the DNA-protein complex was estimated under solution conditions by analyzing the anisotropy decay of the dansyl probe. About 12% of the labeled DNA was bound at the 3'----5' exonuclease site. This method should be useful for investigating the editing mechanism of this important enzyme.