The incorporation of cytosine arabinoside monophosphate (araCMP) into DNA at internucleotide linkages by DNA polymerase alpha (DNA pol alpha) has been investigated by using oligonucleotide primed DNA templates. The products of reactions catalyzed by DNA pol alpha in vitro were analyzed on polyacrylamide gels to measure insertion of araCMP, extension from an araCMP 3' terminus, and binding of the enzyme to an araCMP 3' terminus. The results show that insertion of araCMP opposite dGMP in the DNA template is about 3-fold less efficient than insertion of dCMP. Extension from an araCMP 3' terminus by addition of the next complementary nucleotide is approximately 2000-fold less efficient than extension from a correctly base-paired 3' terminus. In the absence of the second substrate, dNTP, DNA pol alpha binds with approximately equal affinities to DNA templates that contain oligonucleotide primers with araCMP or dCMP positioned at the 3' terminus. In the presence of dNTP, the enzyme extends the araCMP 3' terminus or dissociates, but it is not trapped at the araCMP 3' terminus in a nonproductive ternary complex as is observed at the ddCMP 3' terminus. To determine if slow phosphodiester bond formation contributes to the observed extension rate from the araCMP 3' terminus by DNA pol alpha, oligonucleotide primers with araCMP positioned at the 3' terminus were elongated by addition of the alpha-phosphorothioate analogue of the next complementary nucleotide. The rate of extension from araCMP by addition of 2'-deoxyadenosine 5'-O-phosphorothioate (dAMP alpha S) was 6-fold slower than by addition of dAMP, indicating that bond formation is partially rate limiting in the extension reaction. Thus, inefficient extension from the araCMP 3' terminus is the major determinant contributing to the low incorporation frequency of araCMP into DNA by DNA pol alpha, and this inefficiency can be attributed, in part, to slower phosphodiester bond formation at the araCMP 3' terminus.