Circular, double-stranded DNA molecules were injected into nuclei of mouse oocytes and one- or two-cell embryos to determine whether specific sequences were required to replicate DNA during mouse development. Although all of the injected DNAs were stable, replication of plasmid pML-1 DNA was not detected unless it contained either polyomavirus (PyV) or simian virus 40 (SV40) DNA sequences. Replication occurred in embryos, but not in oocytes. PyV DNA, either alone or recombined with pML-1, underwent multiple rounds of replication to produce superhelical and relaxed circular monomers after injection into one- or two-cell embryos. SV40 DNA also replicated, but only 3% as well as PyV DNA. Coinjection of PyV DNA with either pML-1 or SV40 had no effect on the replicating properties of the three DNAs. These results are consistent with a requirement for specific cis-acting sequences to replicate DNA in mammalian embryos, in contrast to sequence-independent replication of DNA injected into Xenopus eggs. Furthermore, PyV DNA replication in mouse embryos required PyV large T-antigen and either the alpha-beta-core or beta-core configuration of the PyV origin of replication. Although the alpha-core configuration replicated in differentiated mouse cells, it failed to replicate in mouse embryos, demonstrating cell-specific activation of an origin of replication. Replication or expression of PyV DNA interfered with normal embryonic development. These results reveal that mouse embryos are permissive for PyV DNA replication, in contrast to the absence of PyV DNA replication and gene expression in mouse embryonal carcinoma cells.