Treating HIV infections with drugs that block viral replication selects for drug-resistant strains of the virus. Particular inhibitors select characteristic resistance mutations. In the case of the nucleoside analogs 3TC and FTC, resistant viruses are selected with mutations at amino acid residue 184 of reverse transcriptase (RT). The initial change is usually to M184I; this virus is rapidly replaced by a variant carrying the mutation M184V. 3TC and FTC are taken up by cells and converted into 3TCTP and FTCTP. The triphosphate forms of these nucleoside analogs are incorporated into DNA by HIV-1 RT and act as chain terminators. Both of the mutations, M184I and M184V, provide very high levels of resistance in vivo; purified HIV-1 RT carrying M184V and M184I also shows resistance to 3TCTP and FTCTP in in vitro polymerase assays. Amino acid M184 is part of the dNTP binding site of HIV-1 RT. Structural studies suggest that the mechanism of resistance of HIV-1 RTs carrying the M184V or M184I mutation involves steric hindrance, which could either completely block the binding of 3TCTP and FTCTP or allow binding of these nucleoside triphosphate molecules but only in a configuration that would prevent incorporation. The available kinetic data are ambiguous: one group has reported that the primary effect of the mutations is at the level of 3TCTP binding; another, at the level of incorporation. We have approached this problem using assays that monitor the ability of HIV-1 RT to undergo a conformational change upon binding a dNTP. These studies show that both wild-type RT and the drug-resistant variants can bind 3TCTP at the polymerase active site; however, the binding to M184V and M184I is somewhat weaker and is sensitive to salt. We propose that the drug-resistant variants bind 3TCTP in a strained configuration that is salt-sensitive and is not catalytically competent.