The prepriming steps in the initiation of bacteriophage lambda DNA replication depend on the action of the lambda O and P proteins and on the DnaB helicase, single-stranded DNA binding protein (SSB), and DnaJ and DnaK heat shock proteins of the E. coli host. The binding of multiple copies of the lambda O protein to the phage replication origin (ori lambda) initiates the ordered assembly of a series of nucleoprotein structures that form at ori lambda prior to DNA unwinding, priming and DNA synthesis steps. Since the initiation of lambda DNA replication is known to occur only on supercoiled templates in vivo and in vitro, we examined how the early steps in lambda DNA replication are influenced by superhelical tension. All initiation complexes formed prior to helicase-mediated DNA-unwinding form with high efficiency on relaxed ori lambda DNA. Nonetheless, the DNA templates in these structures must be negatively supertwisted before they can be replicated. Once DNA helicase unwinding is initiated at ori lambda, however, later steps in lambda DNA replication proceed efficiently in the absence of superhelical tension. We conclude that supercoiling is required during the initiation of lambda DNA replication to facilitate entry of a DNA helicase, presumably the DnaB protein, between the DNA strands.