Fluorescence energy transfer was used to measure the assembly and disassembly of actin filaments. Actin was labeled at cysteine 373 with an energy donor (5-iodoacetamidofluorescein) or an energy acceptor (tetramethylrhodamine iodoacetamide or eosin iodoacetamide). Donor- labeled actin and acceptor-labeled actin were coassembled. The dependence of the transfer efficiency on the mole fraction of acceptor- labeled actin showed that the radial coordinate of the label at cysteine 373 is approximately 35 A, which means that this site is located near the outer surface of the filament. The distance between a donor and the closest acceptor in such a filament is 58 A. The increase in fluorescence after the mixing of actin filaments containing both donor and acceptor with unlabeled filaments showed that there is a slow continuous exchange of actin units. The rate of exchange was markedly accelerated when the filaments were sonicated. The rapid loss of energy transfer caused by mechanical shear probably resulted from an increase in the number of filament ends, which in turn accelerated the exchange of monomeric actin units. Energy transfer promises to be a valuable tool in characterizing the assembly and dynamics of actin and other cytoskeletal and contractile proteins in vitro and in intact cells.