Unique single-stranded regions of simian virus 40 DNA, phage M13 virion DNA, and several homopolymers were used as templates for the synthesis of (p)ppRNA-DNA chains by CV-1 cell DNA primase-DNA polymerase α. Intact RNA primers, specifically labeled with an RNA capping enzyme, were typically 6 to 8 ribonucleotides long, although their lengths ranged from 1 to 9 bases. The fraction of intact RNA primers 1 to 4 ribonucleotides long was 14 to 73%, depending on the template used. RNA primer length varied among primers initiated at the same nucleotide, as well as with primers initiated at different sites. Thus, the size of an RNA primer depended on template sequence. Initiation sites were identified by mapping 5' ends of nascent RNA-DNA chains on the template sequence, identifying the 5'-terminal ribonucleoside, and partially sequencing one RNA primer. A total of 56 initiation events were identified on simian virus 40 DNA, an average of 1 every 16 bases. Some sites were preferred over others. A consensus sequence for initiation sites consisted of either 3'-dCTTT or 3'-dCCC centered within 7 to 25 pyrimidine-rich residues; the 5' ends of RNA primers were complementary to the dT or dC. High ATP/GTP ratios promoted initiation of RNA primer synthesis at 3'-dCTTT sites, whereas low ATP/GTP ratios promoted initiation at 3'-dCCC sites. Similarly, polydeoxythymidylic acid and polydeoxycytidylic acid were the only effective homopolymer templates. Thus, both template sequence and ribonucleoside triphosphate concentrations determine which initiation sites are used by DNA primase-DNA polymerase α. Remarkably, initiation sites selected in vitro were strikingly different from initiation sites selected during simian virus 40 DNA replication in vivo.