Success in treating hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection with nucleoside analog drugs like lamivudine is limited by the emergence of drug-resistant viral strains upon prolonged therapy. The predominant lamivudine resistance mutations in HBV-infected patients are Met552IIe and Met552Val (Met552Ile/Val), frequently in association with a second mutation, Leu528Met. The effects of Leu528Met, Met552Ile, and Met552Val mutations on the binding of HBV polymerase inhibitors and the natural substrate dCTP were evaluated using an in vitro HBV polymerase assay. Susceptibility to lamivudine triphosphate (3TCTP), emtricitabine triphosphate (FTCTP), adefovir diphosphate, penciclovir triphosphate, and lobucavir triphosphate was assessed by determination of inhibition constants (K(i)). Recognition of the natural substrate, dCTP, was assessed by determination of Km values. The results from the in vitro studies were as follows: (i) dCTP substrate binding was largely unaffected by the mutations, with Km changing moderately, only in a range of 0.6 to 2.6-fold; (ii) K(i)s for 3TCTP and FTCTP against Met552Ile/Val mutant HBV polymerases were increased 8- to 30-fold; and (iii) the Leu528Met mutation had a modest effect on direct binding of these beta-L-oxathiolane ring-containing nucleotide analogs. A three-dimensional homology model of the catalytic core of HBV polymerase was constructed via extrapolation from retroviral reverse transcriptase structures. Molecular modeling studies using the HBV polymerase homology model suggested that steric hindrance between the mutant amino acid side chain and lamivudine or emtricitabine could account for the resistance phenotype. Specifically, steric conflict between the Cgamma2-methyl group of Ile or Val at position 552 in HBV polymerase and the sulfur atom in the oxathiolane ring (common to both beta-L-nucleoside analogs lamivudine and emtricitabine) is proposed to account for the resistance observed upon Met552Ile/Val mutation. The effects of the Leu528Met mutation, which also occurs near the HBV polymerase active site, appeared to be less direct, potentially involving rearrangement of the deoxynucleoside triphosphate-binding pocket residues. These modeling results suggest that nucleotide analogs that are beta-D-enantiomers, that have the sulfur replaced by a smaller atom, or that have modified or acyclic ring systems may retain activity against lamivudine-resistant mutants, consistent with the observed susceptibility of these mutants to adefovir, lobucavir, and penciclovir in vitro and adefovir in vivo.