Previous structural studies of the cyclopropapyrroloindole (CPI) antitumor antibiotics have shown that these ligands bind covalently edge-on into the minor groove of double-stranded DNA. Reversible covalent modification of the DNA via N3 of adenine occurs in a sequence-specific fashion. Early nuclear magnetic resonance and molecular modeling studies with both mono- and bis-allcylating ligands indicated that the ligands fit tightly within the minor groove, causing little distortion of the helix. In this study, we propose a new binding model for several of the CPI-based analogues, in which the aromatic secondary rings form pi-stacked complexes within the minor groove. One of the adducts, formed with adozelesin and the d(ATTAAT)(2) sequence, also demonstrates the ability of these ligands to manipulate the DNA of the binding site, resulting in a Hoogsteen base-paired adduct. Although this type of base pairing has been previously observed with the bisfunctional CPI analogue bizelesin, this is the first time that such an observation has been made with a monoalkylating nondimeric analogue. Together, these results provide a new model for the design of CPI-based antitumor antibiotics, which also has a significant bearing on other structurally related and structurally unrelated minor groove-binding ligands. They indicate the dynamic nature of ligand DNA interactions, demonstrating both DNA conformational flexibility and the ability of two DNA-bound ligands to interact to form stable covalent modified complexes.