The DNA binding properties of the polyomavirus structural proteins VP1, VP2, and VP3 were studied by Southwestern analysis. The major viral structural protein VP1 and host-contributed histone proteins of polyomavirus virions were shown to exhibit DNA binding activity, but the minor capsid proteins VP2 and VP3 failed to bind DNA. The N-terminal first five amino acids (Ala-1 to Lys-5) were identified as the VP1 DNA binding domain by genetic and biochemical approaches. Wild-type VP1 expressed in Escherichia coli (RK1448) exhibited DNA binding activity, but the N-terminal truncated VP1 mutants (lacking Ala-1 to Lys-5 and Ala-1 to Cys-11) failed to bind DNA. The synthetic peptide (Ala-1 to Cys-11) was also shown to have an affinity for DNA binding. Site-directed mutagenesis of the VP1 gene showed that the point mutations at Pro-2, Lys-3, and Arg-4 on the VP1 molecule did not affect DNA binding properties but that the point mutation at Lys-5 drastically reduced DNA binding affinity. The N-terminal (Ala-1 to Lys-5) region of VP1 was found to be essential and specific for DNA binding, while the DNA appears to be non-sequence specific. The DNA binding domain and the nuclear localization signal are located in the same N-terminal region.