Experiment indicates that the N7-guanine site in DNA is not "promutagenic" (mutation-inducing) on alkylation, while the O6-guanine and O4-thymine sites are so. These differences in nucleic acid template activity are attributed to corresponding differences in acidity of the Watson-Crick hydrogen bonding protons. Mechanistic indicators for ease of Watson-Crick proton loss are calculated using molecular orbital theory for DNA bases alkylated at the N7-guanine, O6-guanine and O4-thymine sites. Their values point to a definite favouring of the proton loss for the O-alkylated bases compared to the N7-alkylguanines. This may suggest the possibility that, at biological pH, the O-alkylated bases deprotonate readily while the N7-alkylguanines do not, thus accounting for observed differences in promutagenicity and nucleic acid template activity. © 1989 Academic Press Limited.