A series of 2-substituted benzimidazole D- and L-erythrofuranosyl nucleosides were synthesized and tested for activity against herpesviruses and for cytotoxicity. The D-nucleosides 2,5, 6-trichloro-1-(beta-D-erythrofuranosyl)benzimidazole (8a) and 2-bromo-5,6-dichloro-1-(beta-D-erythrofuranosyl)benzimidazole (8b) were prepared by coupling 1,2,3-tri-O-acetyl-beta-D-erythrofuranose (D-6) with the appropriate benzimidazole, followed by removal of the acetyl protecting groups. The 2-isopropylamino (9), 2-cyclopropylamino (10), and 2-mercaptobenzyl (11) derivatives were synthesized by nucleophilic displacements of the C-2 chlorine in the benzimidazole moiety of 8a. The D-nucleoside 4-bromo-5, 6-dichloro-2-isopropylamino-1-(beta-D-erythrofuranosyl)benzimid azo le (17) was prepared by coupling D-6 with the appropriate benzimidazole. The L-erythrofuranosyl derivatives, 5, 6-dichloro-2-isopropylamino-1-(beta-L-erythrofuranosyl)benzimid azo le (21a), its 2-cyclopropylamino analogue (21b), and the 2-isopropylamino analogue (25), were prepared by coupling L-6 with the appropriate benzimidazole. Several of these new derivatives had very good activity against HCMV in plaque and yield reduction assays (IC(50) = 0.05-19 microM against the Towne strain of HCMV) and DNA hybridization assays. Very little activity was observed against other herpesviruses. This pattern is similar to the antiviral activity profile observed for the corresponding ribofuranosides 2,5, 6-trichloro-1-(beta-D-ribofuranosyl)benzimidazole (4a), its 2-bromo analogue (4b), and the 2-cyclopropylamino analogue (4c). In comparison, 8a was 15-fold more active against HCMV than 4a, and 8b was 4-fold more active against HCMV than 4b. The 5, 6-dichloro-2-isopropylamino-1-(beta-L-erythrofuranosyl)benzimid azo le (21a) was less active than 4c, which is now in clinical trials for HCMV infection. Both 8a,b had comparable HCMV activity to 4c. Mode of action studies with the D-erythrose analogues established that 8b acted by inhibition of viral DNA processing whereas 9 and 10 may act via a different mechanism. The lack of a 5'-hydroxymethyl group in all members of this series established that antiviral activity occurred without 5'-phosphorylation, a feature required for the activity of most nucleoside analogues.