We have established an in vitro reaction in which heteroduplex DNA formation is dependent on the concerted actions of recA and recBCD proteins, the major components of the recBCD pathway of genetic recombination in vivo. We find that heteroduplex DNA formation requires three distinct enzymatic functions: first, the helicase activity of recBCD enzyme initiates heteroduplex DNA formation by unwinding the linear double-stranded DNA molecule to transiently form single-stranded DNA (ssDNA); second, recA protein traps this ssDNA before it reanneals; third, recA protein catalyzes the pairing of this ssDNA molecule with another homologous ssDNA molecule, followed by the renaturation of these molecules to form heteroduplex DNA. The first two functions should be important to all in vitro reactions involving recA and recBCD proteins, whereas the third will be specific to the DNA substrates used. The rate-limiting step of heteroduplex DNA formation is the trapping by recA protein of the ssDNA produced by recBCD enzyme. A model for this reaction is described.