To examine the role of the mitochondrial polymerase (Pol gamma) in clinically observed toxicity of nucleoside analogs used to treat AIDS, we examined the kinetics of incorporation catalyzed by Pol gamma for each Food and Drug Administration-approved analog plus 1-(2-deoxy-2-fluoro-beta-D-arabinofuranosyl)-5-iodouracil (FIAU), beta-L-(-)-2',3'-dideoxy-3'-thiacytidine (-)3TC, and (R)-9-(2-phosphonylmethoxypropyl)adenine (PMPA). We used recombinant exonuclease-deficient (E200A), reconstituted human Pol gamma holoenzyme in single turnover kinetic studies to measure K(d) (K(m)) and k(pol) (k(cat)) to estimate the specificity constant (k(cat)/K(m)) for each nucleoside analog triphosphate. The specificity constants vary more than 500,000-fold for the series ddC > ddA (ddI) > 2',3'-didehydro-2',3'-dideoxythymidine (d4T) >> (+)3TC >> (-)3TC > PMPA > azidothymidine (AZT) >> Carbovir (CBV). Abacavir (prodrug of CBV) and PMPA are two new drugs that are expected to be least toxic. Notably, the higher toxicities of d4T, ddC, and ddA arose from their 13-36-fold tighter binding relative to the normal dNTP even though their rates of incorporation were comparable with PMPA and AZT. We also examined the rate of exonuclease removal of each analog after incorporation. The rates varied from 0.06 to 0.0004 s(-1) for the series FIAU > (+)3TC approximately equal to (-)3TC > CBV > AZT > PMPA approximately equal to d4T >> ddA (ddI) >> ddC. Removal of ddC was too slow to measure (<0.00002 s(-1)). The high toxicity of dideoxy compounds, ddC and ddI (metabolized to ddA), may be a combination of high rates of incorporation and ineffective exonuclease removal. Conversely, the more effective excision of (-)3TC, CBV, and AZT may contribute to lower toxicity. FIAU is readily extended by the next correct base pair (0.13 s(-1)) faster than it is removed (0.06 s(-1)) and, therefore, is stably incorporated and highly mutagenic. We define a toxicity index for chain terminators to account for relative rates of incorporation versus removal. These results provide a method to rapidly screen new analogs for potential toxicity.