Both monolayer and thick (20 microm) films of dry pGEM-3Zf(-) plasmid DNA deposited on tantalum foil were exposed to Al Kalpha X-rays (1.5 keV) for various times in an ultrahigh vacuum chamber. For monolayer DNA, the damage was induced mainly by low energy secondary electrons (SEs) emitted from the tantalum. For the thick films, DNA damage was induced chiefly by X-ray photons. Different forms of plasmid DNA were separated and quantified by agarose gel electrophoresis. The exposure curves for the formation of nicked circular (single strand break, SSB), linear (double strand break, DSB), and interduplex cross-link forms 1 and 2 were obtained for both monolayer and thick films of DNA, respectively. The lower limits of G values for SSB and DSB induced by SEs were derived to be 86 +/- 2 and 8 +/- 2 nmol J(-1), respectively. These values are 1.5 and 1.6 times larger than those obtained with 1.5 keV photons. The projected X-ray energy dependence of the low energy electron (LEE) enhancement factor for the SSB and DSB in monolayer DNA is also discussed. This new method of investigation of the SE-induced damage to large biomolecules allows direct comparison of the yield of products induced by high energy photons and LEEs under identical experimental conditions.