Abstract A previous study in our laboratory of the reaction of formaldehyde with super-helical DNAs (φX replicative form and PM2) has led to a model for superhelical DNA in which there is a region or regions of altered secondary structure containing unpaired bases. Similar experiments using the nicked circular DNA gave no evidence of interruptions of base pairing. In this study we present additional data, which support the above model as well as extending our analysis of the secondary structure of superhelical DNA and the dynamics of the early denaturation process. In a series of experiments involving the binding of methyl-mercury as a chemical probe of unpaired bases, we obtained the following results. (1) Initially, both s 0 20w and the buoyant density of the superhelical form of phage PM2 DNA increased as a function of methylmercuric hydroxide concentration, whereas the nicked form did not. (2) This initial binding is accompanied by an increase in superhelical content τ from −41 to −46 turns. (3) The binding analysis allows us to estimate that 3.7% of the bases contain methylmercury in this phase of the transition. This is in excellent agreement with the extent of formylation. (4) Such a preformylated molecule shows a shift in the transition to lower mercurial concentrations. These results are interpreted as follows. The initial increase in −τ excludes the possibility that binding occurs to normal base-paired structures, since this would produce a coupled unwinding of duplex and superhelical turns. The additive effects of formylation and methylmercury binding support the concept that both chemical probes attack the same sites and induce similar structural changes. Thus the evidence clearly supports the view that superhelical DNA contains localized region(s) of interrupted base pairing. Recent studies from other laboratories using single strand-specific endonucleases are in complete agreement with this model.