The photoaffinity analogue ethidium monoazide was used to prepare samples of poly-(dGdC)·poly(dGdC) containing covalently attached ethidium. The effects of both noncovalently and covalently bound ethidium on the kinetics of the NaCl-induced B to Z transition in poly(dGdC)·poly(dGdC) was examined using absorbance and fluorescence spectroscopy to monitor the reaction. Covalently and noncovalently attached ethidium were equal in the extent to which they reduce the rate of the B to Z transition. By using fluorescence to selectively monitor the fate of noncovalently bound ethidium over the course of the transition, we found that ethidium completely dissociates as the reaction proceeds, but at a rate that lags behind the conversion of the polymer to the Z form. These experiments provide evidence for the redistribution of noncovalently bound ethidium over the course of the B to Z transition, leading to the development of biphasic reaction kinetics. The observed kinetics suggest that the primary effect of both covalently and noncovalently bound ethidium is on the nucleation step of the B to Z transition. The reduction in the rate of the B to Z transition by noncovalently or covalently bound ethidium may be quantitatively explained as resulting from the reduced probability of finding a drug-free length of helix long enough for nucleation to occur. As necessary ancillary experiments, the defined length deoxyoligonucleotides (dGdC)4, (dGdC)5, and (dGdC)6 were synthesized and used in kinetic experiments designed to determine the nucleation length of the B to Z transition, which was found to be 6 bp. The activation energy of the B to Z transition was demonstrated to be independent of the amount of covalently bound ethidium and was found to be 21.2 ±1.1 kcal mol−1. Covalent attachment of ethidium was observed to increase the rate of the reverse Z to B transition, presumably by locking regions of the polymer into a right-handed conformation and thereby providing nucleation sites from which the Z to B conversion may propagate. © 1991, American Chemical Society. All rights reserved.