The mechanisms that regulate ubiquitin-mediated degradation of proteins such as the mitotic cyclins at defined stages of the cell cycle are poorly understood. The initial step in the conjugation of ubiquitin to substrate proteins involves the activation of ubiquitin by the ubiquitin-activating enzyme, E1. Previously we have described the subcellular localization of this enzyme to both nuclear and cytoplasmic compartments. In the present study, we have used the 1C5 anti-E1 monoclonal antibody in immunofluorescent-microscopy and subcellular-fractionation techniques to examine the distribution of E1 during the HeLa cell cycle. E1 is both cytoskeletal and nuclear during the G1-phase. As the cells progress into S-phase, E1 is exclusively cytoskeletal and has a perinuclear distribution. During G2-phase, E1 reappears in the nucleus before breakdown of the nuclear envelope. In mitotic cells, E1 localizes to both the mitotic spindle and the cytosol, but is absent from the chromosomes. Immunoblot analysis reveals multiple forms of E1 in HeLa whole cell extract. This heterogeneity is not a result of polyubiquitination and may represent inactive pools of E1. Only the characteristic E1 doublet is able to activate ubiquitin. Cell-fractionation studies reveal a differential distribution of specific E1 isoforms throughout the cell cycle. Therefore we propose that the subcellular localization of E1 may play a role in regulating cell-cycle-dependent conjugation of ubiquitin to target proteins.