The formation of the RecA/DNA nucleofilament on nicked circular double stranded (ds) DNA in the presence of ATPgammaS was studied using the atomic force microscope (AFM) at nanometer resolution. The AFM allowed simultaneous observation of both dsDNA substrate and RecA protein-coated sections such that they are highly distinguishable. Using a time series of images, the complex formation was monitored. AFM imaging provided direct evidence that assembly of the nucleofilaments occurs via a nucleation and growth mechanism. The nucleation step is much slower than the growth phase, as demonstrated by the predominance of naked dsDNA at early and middle time points, followed by the rapid appearance of partially then fully formed complexes. Observation of the formation of nucleation sites without accompanying growth on unnicked dsDNA enabled an estimate of the nucleation rate, of 5 x 10(-5) RecA min(-1) bp(-1). The published model for the analysis of RecA assembly on dsDNA deduces a single kinetic parameter that prevents the separate determination of nucleation rate and growth rate. By directly measuring the nucleation rate with the AFM, this model is employed to determine a growth rate of 202 min(-1). These AFM results provide the first direct evidence of previous results on complex formation obtained only by indirect means.