Drosophila melanogaster topoisomerase II is capable of joining phi X174 (+) strand DNA that it has cleaved to duplex oligonucleotide acceptor molecules by an intermolecular ligation reaction (Gale, K. C. and Osheroff, N. (1990) Biochemistry 29, 9538-9545). In order to investigate potential mechanisms for topoisomerase II-mediated DNA recombination, this intrinsic enzyme activity was further characterized. Intermolecular DNA ligation proceeded in a time-dependent fashion and was concentration-dependent with respect to oligonucleotide. The covalent linkage between phi X174 (+) strand DNA and acceptor molecules was confirmed by Southern analysis and alkaline gel electrophoresis. Topoisomerase II-mediated intermolecular DNA ligation required the oligonucleotide to contain a 3'-OH terminus. Moreover, the reaction was dependent on the presence of a divalent cation, was inhibited by salt, and was not affected by the presence of ATP. The enzyme was capable of ligating phi X174 (+) strand DNA to double-stranded oligonucleotides that contained 5'-overhang, 3'-overhand, or blunt ends. Single-stranded, nicked, or gapped oligonucleotides also could be used as acceptor molecules. These results demonstrate that the type II enzyme has an intrinsic ability to mediate illegitimate DNA recombination in vitro and suggests possible roles for topoisomerase II in nucleic acid recombination in vivo.