The effect of the Escherichia coli single-stranded DNA binding (SSB) protein on the stability of complexes of E. coli RecA protein with single-stranded DNA has been investigated through direct DNA binding experiments. The effect of each protein on the binding of the other to single-stranded DNA, and the effect of SSB protein on the transfer rate of RecA protein from one single-stranded DNA molecule to another, were studied. The binding of SSB protein and RecA protein to single-stranded phage M13 DNA is found to be competitive and, therefore, mutually exclusive. In the absence of a nucleotide cofactor, SSB protein binds more tightly to single-stranded DNA than does RecA protein, whereas in the presence of ATP-gamma-S, RecA protein binds more tightly than SSB protein. In the presence of ATP, an intermediate result is obtained that depends on the type of DNA used, the temperature, and the magnesium ion concentration. When complexes of RecA protein, SSB protein and single-stranded M13 DNA are formed under conditions of slight molar excess of single-stranded DNA, no effect of RecA protein on the equilibrium stability of the SSB protein-single-stranded DNA complex is observed. Under similar conditions, SSB protein has no observed effect on the stability of the RecA protein-etheno M13 DNA complex. Finally, measurements of the rate of RecA protein transfer from RecA protein-single-stranded DNA complexes to competing single-stranded DNA show that there is no kinetic stabilization of the RecA protein-etheno M13 DNA complex by SSB protein, but that a tenfold stabilization is observed when single-stranded M13 DNA is used to form the complex. However, this apparent stabilizing effect of SSB protein can be mimicked by pre-incubation of the RecA protein-single-stranded M13 DNA complex in low magnesium ion concentration, suggesting that this effect of SSB protein is indirect and is mediated through changes in the secondary structure of the DNA. Since no direct effect of SSB protein is observed on either the equilibrium or dissociation properties of the RecA protein-single-stranded DNA complex, it is concluded that the likely effect of SSB protein in the strand assimilation reaction is on a slow step in the association of RecA protein with single-stranded DNA. Direct evidence for this conclusion is presented in the accompanying paper.