The cell cycle regulator p21 interacts with and inhibits the DNA replication and repair factor proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA). We have defined a 39 amino acid fragment of p21 which is sufficient to bind PCNA with high affinity (K(d) 10-20 nM). This peptide can inhibit DNA replication in vitro and microinjection of a GST fusion protein containing this domain inhibited S phase in vivo. Despite its high affinity for PCNA, the free 39 amino acid peptide does not have a well-defined structure, as judged from circular dichroism and nuclear magnetic resonance measurements, suggesting an induced fit mechanism for the PCNA-p21 interaction. The association of the small peptide with PCNA was thermolabile, suggesting that portions of p21 adjoining the minimal region of contact stabilize the interaction. In addition, a domain containing 67 amino acids from the N-terminus of PCNA was defined as both necessary and sufficient for binding to p21.