ATP-dependent DNA ligases are essential enzymes in both DNA replication and DNA repair processes. Here we report a functional characterization of the T4 DNA ligase. One N-terminal and two C-terminal deletion mutants were expressed in Escherichia coli as histidine- tagged proteins. An additional mutant bore a substitution of Lys159 in the active site that abolished ATP binding. All the proteins were tested in biochemical assays for ATP-dependent self-adenylation, DNA binding, nick joining, blunt-end ligation and AMP- dependent DNA relaxation. From this analysis we conclude that binding to DNA is mediated by sequences at both protein ends and plays a key role in the reaction. The enzyme establishes two different complexes with DNA: (i) a transient complex (T.complex) involving the adenylated enzyme; (ii) a stable complex (S.complex) requiring the deadenylated T4 DNA ligase. The formation of an S. complex seems to be relevant during both blunt-end ligation and DNA relaxation. Moreover the inactive His-K159L substitution mutant, although unable to self-adenylate, still possesses AMP-dependent DNA nicking activity.