Duplex DNA oligomer constructs (32 base pairs) were prepared that contained a single benzo[a]pyrene (BP) adduct at a specific deoxyadenosine or deoxyguanosine site in either one or both strands. These constructs were inserted into M13 replicative form viral DNA, and the DNA from progeny virus generated by transfection of Escherichia coli was examined by sequence analysis at the site of oligomer insertion. With nonalkylated constructs, and with constructs containing only one BP adduct, no sequence alterations were found in progeny viral DNAs. With constructs containing two BP adducts, one in each strand and closely spaced, some progeny DNAs showed the original oligomer sequence, whereas others exhibited large deletions and illegitimate (nonhomologous) recombination, both of which removed the damaged construct. Increasing the distance between BP adducts in the construct reduced the frequency of recombinant events. These sequence alterations occurred in both recA+ and recA- host cells. We speculate that the closely spaced adducts in opposite construct strands cause a rare distortion in DNA structure, which activates the recombinant machinery, and that mutagenic and carcinogenic agents other than polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons may cause similar DNA distortions, which induce illegitimate recombination.