Using a DNA band shift assay, we have identified a DNA-binding protein complex in primate cells which is present constitutively and has a high affinity for UV-irradiated, double-stranded DNA. Cells pretreated with UV light, mitomycin C, or aphidicolin have higher levels of this damage-specific DNA-binding protein complex, suggesting that the signal for induction can either be damage to the DNA or interference with cellular DNA replication. Physiochemical modifications of the DNA and competition analysis with defined substrates suggest that the most probable target site for the damage-specific DNA-binding protein complex is a 6-4'-(pyrimidine-2'-one)-pyrimidine dimer: specific binding could not be detected with probes which contain -TT- cyclobutane dimers, and damage-specific DNA binding did not decrease after photoreactivation of UV-irradiated DNA. This damage-specific DNA-binding protein complex is the first such inducible protein complex identified in primate cells. Cells from patients with the sun-sensitive cancer-prone disease, xeroderma pigmentosum (group E), are lacking both the constitutive and the induced damage-specific DNA-binding activities. These findings suggest a possible role for this DNA-binding protein complex in lesion recognition and DNA repair of UV-light-induced photoproducts.