The high fidelity of DNA replication is largely dependent upon accurate incorporation of dNTPs by DNA polymerases. To study the mechanism underlying nucleotide selection, we synthesized four nucleotide analogues bearing the unnatural bases benzimidazole, 5-nitrobenzimidazole, 6-nitrobenzimidazole, and 5-nitroindole and analyzed their incorporation by three DNA polymerases. We have found that human DNA polymerase alpha (pol alpha) and the Klenow fragment of Escherichia coli DNA polymerase I (KF) incorporate all four nucleotide analogues opposite all four canonical bases up to 4000-fold more efficiently than an incorrect natural dNTP (i.e., rates that approach those of a correct, natural dNTP), even though the shape of any base pair formed between the analogue and the template likely does not resemble a normal base pair. While pol alpha preferentially incorporated the analogues opposite template pyrimidines, KF surprisingly preferred to polymerize them opposite template purines. Although neither pol alpha nor KF readily polymerized a natural dNTP opposite either 5- or 6-nitrobenzimidazole in the template strand, the enzymes did incorporate the analogues to generate novel base pairs. Both pol alpha and KF polymerized the analogues up to 140-fold more efficiently than dATP both across from abasic sites and as 3'-overhangs on blunt-ended templates. Although Maloney murine leukemia virus reverse transcriptase did not measurably incorporate the analogues, this enzyme bound the analogues with K(I)'s only slightly higher than the K(m) for polymerization of the normal dNTP. The implications of these results with respect to how polymerases discriminate between correct and incorrect dNTPs are discussed.