The simian virus 40 origin of replication contains a 27-base-pair palindrome with the sequence 5'-CA-GAGGC-C-GAGGC-G-GCCTC-G-GCCTC-TG-3'. The four 5'-GAGGC-3'/5'-GCCTC-3' pentanucleotides are known contact sites for simian virus 40 T-antigen binding in vitro. We used oligonucleotide-directed cassette mutagenesis to identify features of this palindrome that are important for the initiation of DNA replication in vivo. Each base pair of a pentanucleotide is crucial for DNA replication. In contrast, sequences adjacent to pentanucleotides have little or no effect on replication. Thus, the pentanucleotide is the basic functional unit, not only for T-antigen binding but also for DNA replication. All four pentanucleotides are indispensable in the initiation process. The spacing of pentanucleotides is crucial because duplication of the single base pair between binding sites has a far greater effect on replication than does substitution of the same base pair. Inversion of any pentanucleotide blocks DNA synthesis. Thus, the pentanucleotide is not a functionally symmetrical unit. We propose that each pentanucleotide positions a monomer of T antigen at the proper distance, rotation, and orientation relative to other T-antigen monomers and to other origin domains and that such positioning leads to subsequent events in replication.