In non-denaturing low ionic strength gels, the titration of core DNA with H2A,H2B produces five well-defined bands. Quantitative densitometry and cross-linking experiments indicate that these bands are due to the successive binding of H2A,H2B dimers to core DNA. Only two bands are obtained with DNA-(H3,H4) samples. The slower of these bands is broad and presumably corresponds to two complexes containing one and two H3,H4 tetramers, respectively. In gels of higher ionic strength, DNA-(H2A,H2B) samples produce an ill-defined band, suggesting that the lifetime of the complexes containing H2A,H2B is relatively short. However, the low intensity of the free DNA band observed in these gels indicates that most of the DNA is associated with H2A,H2B. In agreement with this, our results obtained using different techniques (sedimentation, cross-linking, trypsin and nuclease digestions, and thermal denaturation) demonstrate that the association of H2A,H2B with core DNA occurs in free solution in both the absence and presence of NaCl (0.1 to 0.2 m). The low mobilities of DNA-(H2A,H2B) complexes, together with sedimentation and DNase I digestion results, indicate that the DNA in these complexes is not folded into the compact structure found in the core particle. Furthermore, non-denaturing gels have been used to study the dynamic properties of DNA-(H2A,H2B) and DNA-(H3,H4) complexes in 0.2 m-NaCl. Our results show that: (1) H2A,H2B and H3,H4 can associate, respectively, with DNA-(H3,H4) and DNA-(H2A,H2B) to produce complexes containing the four core histones; (2) DNA-(H2A,H2B) and DNA-(H3,H4) are able to transfer histones to free core DNA; (3) an exchange of histone pairs takes place between DNA-(H2A,H2B) and DNA-(H3,H4) and produces complexes with the same histone composition as that of the normal nucleosome core particle; and (4) although both histone pairs can exchange, histones H2A,H2B show a higher tendency than H3,H4 to migrate from one incomplete core particle to another. The complexes produced in these reactions have the same compact structure as reconstituted core particles containing the four core histones. Our kinetic results are consistent with a reaction mechanism in which the transfer of histones involves direct contacts between the reacting complexes. The possible participation of these spontaneous reactions on the mechanism of nucleosome assembly is discussed. © 1988.