Rad51 protein (Rad51) is central to recombinational repair of double-strand DNA breaks. It polymerizes onto DNA and promotes strand exchange between homologous chromosomes. We visualized the real-time assembly and disassembly of human Rad51 nucleoprotein filaments on double-stranded DNA by single-molecule fluorescence microscopy. Rad51 assembly extends the DNA by approximately 65%. Nucleoprotein filament formation occurs via rapid nucleation followed by growth from these nuclei. Growth does not continue indefinitely, however, and nucleoprotein filaments terminate when approximately 2 mum in length. The dependence of nascent filament formation on Rad51 concentration suggests that 2-3 Rad51 monomers are involved in nucleation. Rad51 nucleoprotein filaments are stable and remain extended when ATP hydrolysis is prevented; however, when permitted, filaments decrease in length as a result of conversion to ADP-bound nucleoprotein complexes and partial protein dissociation. Dissociation of Rad51 from dsDNA is slow and incomplete, thereby rationalizing the need for other proteins that facilitate disassembly.