DNA polymerase fidelity or specificity expresses the ability of a polymerase to select a correct nucleoside triphosphate (dNTP) from a pool of structurally similar molecules. Fidelity is quantified from the ratio of specificity constants (catalytic efficiencies) for alternate substrates (i.e. correct and incorrect dNTPs). An analysis of the efficiency of dNTP (correct and incorrect) insertion for a low fidelity mutant of DNA polymerase beta (R283A) and exonuclease-deficient DNA polymerases from five families derived from a variety of biological sources reveals that a strong correlation exists between the ability to synthesize DNA and the probability that the polymerase will make a mistake (i.e. base substitution error). Unexpectedly, this analysis indicates that the difference between low and high fidelity DNA polymerases is related to the efficiency of correct, but not incorrect, nucleotide insertion. In contrast to the loss of fidelity observed with the catalytically inefficient R283A mutant, the fidelity of another inefficient mutant of DNA polymerase beta (G274P) is not altered. Thus, although all natural low fidelity DNA polymerases are inefficient, not every inefficient DNA polymerase has low fidelity. Low fidelity polymerases appear to be an evolutionary solution to how to replicate damaged DNA or DNA repair intermediates without burdening the genome with excessive polymerase-initiated errors.