(R)-9-(2-Phosphonylmethoxypropyl)adenine (PMPA) is an acyclic nucleoside phosphonate that has been shown to be effective in the treatment of AIDS although it has a shorter separation between the adenine and phosphorus than dideoxy-AMP and dAMP. By using pre-steady state kinetic methods, we examined the incorporation of the diphosphate of PMPA, 2',3'-dideoxyadenosine 5'-triphosphate (ddATP), and dATP catalyzed by wild-type human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) reverse transcriptase, an exonuclease-deficient T7 DNA polymerase (T7 exo-), and wild-type rat DNA polymerase beta in order to evaluate the selectivity of PMPA as an antiviral inhibitor. With a DNA/DNA or DNA/RNA 22/43-mer duplex, the diphosphate of PMPA (PMPApp) is as effective as ddATP in reactions catalyzed by HIV-1 reverse transcriptase in that both analogs have similar substrate specificity constants (kp/Kd) which are only 5-fold lower than dATP. In contrast, PMPApp is a much weaker inhibitor of the reaction catalyzed by T7 exo- (with the DNA/DNA 22/43-mer duplex) in that PMPApp has a 5 x 10(-4)-fold lower kp/Kd than ddATP and dATP. The lower kp/Kd of PMPApp is due to a 1000-2000-fold lower incorporation rate (kp) and a 35-45-fold lower binding constant (Kd). Similarly, PMPApp is 800-fold less inhibitory toward polymerase beta with the DNA/DNA 22/43-mer duplex, whereas in studies with a single nucleotide gapped DNA (22-20/43-mer) PMPApp is 13-fold less inhibitory than ddATP. Although parallel studies will need to be performed using appropriate human polymerases, these results begin to define the mechanistic basis for the reported lower toxicity of PMPA in the treatment of AIDS.