Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the development of resistance to the anti-HIV drug AZT. Clinical findings show that AZT resistance mutations in HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (RT) not only reduce susceptibility to thymidine analogues but may also confer multi-dideoxynucleoside resistance. In this report, we describe transient kinetic studies establishing the biochemical effects of AZT resistance mutations in HIV-1 RT on the incorporation and removal of natural and unnatural deoxynucleotides. While the physiological role remains to be elucidated, the largest biochemical difference between wild-type and AZT resistant HIV-1 RT manifested itself during ATP-mediated deoxynucleotide removal. Enhanced removal resulted from an increase in the maximum rate of chain terminator excision, suggesting that mutated residues play a role in the optimal alignment of substrates for ATP-mediated removal. The efficiency of pyrophosphorolysis was not increased by the presence of AZT resistance mutations. However, a 2-fold decrease in the extent of inhibition caused by the next correct nucleotide during pyrophosphorolytic cleavage of a D4TMP chain-terminated primer may illustrate how this mutant can utilize pyrophosphate to enhance resistance. The inability of RT to catalyze removal of a chain terminator from an RNA-RNA primer-template may show how slight changes in selectivity against AZTMP incorporation during the initiation of DNA synthesis can contribute to high-level resistance. Taken together, these results suggest that multiple modes of resistance may be conferred by these mutations. Structure-activity studies of chain terminator removal suggest that analogues that form tight interactions with residues in the RT active site may be more prone to resistance mechanisms mediated by removal.