The generation of a local chromatin topology conducive to transcription is a key step in gene regulation. The yeast SWI/SNF complex is the founding member of a family of ATP-dependent remodelling activities capable of altering chromatin structure both in vitro and in vivo. Despite its importance, the pathway by which the SWI/SNF complex disrupts chromatin structure is unknown. Here we use a model system to demonstrate that the yeast SWI/SNF complex can reposition nucleosomes in an ATP-dependent reaction that favours attachment of the histone octamer to an acceptor site on the same molecule of DNA (in cis). We show that SWI/SNF-mediated displacement of the histone octamer is effectively blocked by a barrier introduced into the DNA, suggesting that this redistribution involves sliding or tracking of nucleosomes along DNA, and that it is achieved by a catalytic mechanism. We conclude that SWI/SNF catalyses the redistribution of nucleosomes along DNA in cis, which may represent a general mechanism by which ATP-dependent chromatin remodelling occurs.