The 3'-->5' exonuclease activity of highly purified large form of human DNA polymerase epsilon was studied. The activity removes mononucleotides from the 3' end of an oligonucleotide with a non-processive mechanism and leaves 5'-terminal trinucleotide non-hydrolyzed. This is the case both with single-stranded oligonucleotides and with oligonucleotides annealed to complementary regions of M13DNA. However, the reaction rates with single-stranded oligonucleotides are at least ten-fold when compared to those with completely base-paired oligonucleotides. Conceivably, mismatched 3' end of an oligonucleotide annealed to M13DNA is rapidly removed and the hydrolysis is slowed down when double-stranded region is reached. The preferential removal of a non-complementary 3' end and the nonprocessive mechanism are consistent with anticipated proofreading function. In addition to the 3'-->5' exonuclease activity, an 5'-->3' exonuclease activity is often present even in relatively highly purified DNA polymerase epsilon preparates suggesting that such an activity may be an essential component for the action of this enzyme in vivo. Contrary to the 3'-->5' exonuclease activity, the 5'-->3' exonuclease is separable from the polymerase activity.