Non-muscle cells contain 15-500 microM actin, a large fraction of which is unpolymerized. Thus, the concentration of unpolymerized actin is well above the critical concentration for polymerization in vitro (0.2 microM). This fraction of actin could be prevented from polymerization by being ADP bound (therefore less favored to polymerize) or by being ATP bound and sequestered by a protein such as thymosin beta 4, or both. We isolated the unpolymerized actin from Xenopus egg extracts using immobilized DNase 1 and assayed the bound nucleotide. High-pressure liquid chromatography analysis showed that the bulk of soluble actin is ATP bound. Analysis of actin-bound nucleotide exchange rates suggested the existence of two pools of unpolymerized actin, one of which exchanges nucleotide relatively rapidly and another that apparently does not exchange. Native gel electrophoresis of Xenopus egg extracts demonstrated that most of the soluble actin exists in complexes with other proteins, one of which might be thymosin beta 4. These results are consistent with actin polymerization being controlled by the sequestration and release of ATP-bound actin, and argue against nucleotide exchange playing a major role in regulating actin polymerization.