A series of six oligonucleotides with dihydrodiol epoxide metabolites of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) benz[a]anthracene and benzo[a]pyrene attached to adenine N6 and guanine N2 atoms were prepared and studied with the processive bacteriophage DNA polymerase T7, exonuclease- (T7-). HIV-1 reverse transcriptase was much less efficient in polymerization than T7-. Benz[a]anthracene and benzo[a]pyrene adducts strongly blocked incorporation of dTTP and dCTP opposite the A and G derivatives, respectively. dATP was preferentially incorporated in all cases. Steady state kinetic analysis indicated that the low catalytic efficiency with adducted DNA was due to both increased K(m) and lowered k(cat) values. Some differences due to PAH stereochemistry were observed. Fluorescence estimates of K(d) and presteady state kinetic measurements of k(off) showed no major decrease in the affinity of T7- with damaged DNA substrates or with dNTPs. Presteady state kinetics showed a lack of the normal burst kinetics for dNTP incorporation with all PAH-DNA derivatives. These results indicate that the rate-limiting step is at or before the step of phosphodiester bond formation; release of the oligonucleotide is no longer the slowest step. Thio elemental effects (substitution of alpha-oxygen with sulfur) were relatively small, in contrast to previous work with T7- and 8-oxo-7,8-dihydroguanine. The effect of these bulky PAH adducts is either to attenuate rates of conformational changes or to introduce an additional conformation problem but not to alter the inherent affinity of the polymerase for DNA or dNTPs.