Mutant lines of mouse L cells, TS A1S9, and TS C1, show temperature-sensitive (TS) DNA synthesis and cell division when shifted from 34 degrees to 38.5 degrees C. With TS A1S9 the decline in DNA synthesis begins after 6-8 h at 38.5 degrees C and is most marked at about 24 h. Most cells in S, G2, or M at temperature upshift complete one mitosis and accumulate in the subsequent interphase at G1 or early S as a result of expression of a primary defect, failure of elongation of newly made small DNA fragments. Heat inactivation of TS C1 cells is more rapid; they fail to complete the interphase in progress at temperature upshift and accumulate at late S or G2. Inhibition of both cell types is reversible on return to 34 degrees C. Cell and nuclear growth continues during inhibition of replication. Expression of both TS mutations leads to a marked change in gross organization of chromatin as revealed by electron microscopy. Nuclei of wild-type cells at 34 degrees and 38.5 degrees C and mutant cells at 34 degrees C show a range of aggregation of condensed chromatin from small dispersed bodies to large discrete clumps, with the majority in an intermediate state. In TS cells at 38.5 degrees C, condensed chromatin bodies in the central nuclear region become disaggregated into small clumps dispersed through the nucleus. Morphometric estimation of volume of condensed chromatin indicates that this process is not due to complete decondensation of chromatin fibrils, but rather involves dispersal of large condensed chromatin bodies into finer aggregates and loosening of fibrils within the aggregates. The dispersed condition is reversed in nuclei which resume DNA synthesis when TS cells are downshifted from 38.5 degrees to 34 degrees C. The morphological observations are consistent with the hypothesis that condensed chromatin normally undergoes an ordered cycle of transient, localized disaggregation and reaggregation associated with replication. In temperature-inactivated mutants, normal progressive disaggregation presumably occurs, but subsequent lack of chromatin replication prevents reaggregation.