Indirect end-labelling and the digestion patterns of endogenous and exogenous nucleases were used to analyse chromatin organization along the ribosomal RNA genes of Dictyostelium discoideum cells. A zone just upstream from the 5' end of the coding region was particularly sensitive to endogenous nucleases. In exponentially growing cells, this hypersensitive zone extended from -350 to -1600 bp relative to the transcription start. In sharp contrast, the DNA between 0 and -350 bp was strongly protected. In differentiating cells, in which the ribosomal RNA transcription rate is low, the 5' hypersensitive zone was more diffuse than in exponentially growing cells, and the protected region at the 5' end of the transcribed region was less pronounced. It is known that where DNA topoisomerase is acting on DNA, the addition of sodium dodecyl sulphate will result in cleavage of the DNA and covalent attachment of the enzyme to the cut DNA end. Treatment of nuclei from both exponentially growing cells and differentiating cells with SDS caused double-stranded cleavages at -200 (i.e. within the protected region), at -2200, and at two sites at about -17 kb. A fraction of the cleavage products appeared to be strongly associated with protein. Novobiocin, a DNA topoisomerase II inhibitor, did not inhibit the SDS-induced cleavages in vegetative cells. However, it significantly reduced the extent of nuclease cleavage within the -350 to -1600 bp hypersensitive zone. The possibility is discussed that there are two DNA topoisomerase-like activities on the ribosomal genes. One is site-specific and novobiocin-insensitive. We speculate that the other is responsible for maintaining DNA at the 5' end of the gene in a torsionally strained, nuclease-hypersensitive state.