Transposition is a multistep process in which a transposable element DNA sequence moves from its original genetic location to a new site. Early steps in this process include the formation of a transposition complex in which the end sequences of the transposable element are brought together in a structurally precise fashion through the action of the element-encoded transposase protein and the cleavage of the element free from the adjoining DNA. If transposition complex formation must precede DNA cleavage (or nicking), then changing the length of the donor DNA between closely spaced ends should have dramatic effects on the frequency of the transposition. This question has been examined by studying the effects of altering donor DNA length on IS50 transposition. Donor DNA < or = 64 bp severely impaired transposition. Donor DNA > or = 200 bp demonstrated high transposition frequencies with only modest length dependencies. Constructs with donor DNA lengths between 66 and 174 bp demonstrated a dramatic periodic effect on transposition (periodicity approximately 10.5 bp).