We have used circular dichroism and structure-directed drugs to identify the role of structural features, wide and narrow grooves in particular, required for the cooperative polymerization, recognition of homologous sequences, and the formation of joint molecules promoted by recA protein. The path of cooperative polymerization of recA protein was deduced by its ability to cause quantitative displacement of distamycin from the narrow groove of duplex DNA. By contrast, methyl green bound to the wide groove was retained by the nucleoprotein filaments comprised of recA protein-DNA. Further, the mode of binding of these ligands and recA protein to DNA was confirmed by DNaseI digestion. More importantly, the formation of joint molecules was prevented by distamycin in the narrow groove while methyl green in the wide groove had no adverse effect. Intriguingly, distamycin interfered with the production of coaggregates between nucleoprotein filaments of recA protein-M13 ssDNA and naked linear M13 duplex DNA, but not with linear phi X174 duplex DNA. Thus, these data, in conjunction with molecular modeling, suggest that the narrow grooves of duplex DNA provide the fundamental framework required for the cooperative polymerization of recA protein and alignment of homologous sequences. These findings and their significance are discussed in relation to models of homologous pairing between two intertwined DNA molecules.