A DNA template containing a single ethyl phosphotriester was replicated in vitro by the bacteriophage T4 DNA polymerase and by Escherichia coli DNA polymerase I (DNA pol I). Escherichia coli DNA pol I bypassed the lesion efficiently, but partial inhibition was observed for T4 DNA polymerase. The replication block produced by the ethyl phosphotriester was increased at low dNTP concentrations and for a mutant T4 DNA polymerase with an antimutator phenotype, increased proofreading activity, and reduced ability to bind DNA in the polymerase active center. These observations support a model in which an ethyl phosphotriester impedes primer elongation by T4 DNA polymerase by decreasing formation of the ternary DNA polymerase-DNA-dNTP complex. When primer elongation is not possible, proofreading becomes the favored reaction. Apparent futile cycles of nucleotide incorporation and proofreading, the idling reaction, were observed at the site of the lesion. The replication block was overcome by higher dNTP concentrations. Thus, ethyl phosphotriesters may be tolerated in vivo by the up-regulation of dNTP biosynthesis that occurs during the cellular checkpoint response to blocked DNA replication forks.