We have analyzed the processing of the RNA primer for (+) strand DNA synthesis by reverse transcriptase of the human immunodeficiency virus 1. To test for specific RNA cleavage and primer usage, we constructed a 99-base pair RNA-DNA hybrid containing the viral polypurine tract and flanking viral sequences. Although the RNase H activity of reverse transcriptase cleaves the RNA strand into multiple fragments, only two primers are extended in the presence of nucleoside triphosphates. The major RNA primer includes the entire polypurine tract except for the last adenosine and has the sequence 5'-UUUUAAAAGAAAAGGGGGG-3'. The minor primer has the same 3' end but is two nucleotides shorter. In a subsequent processing step reverse transcriptase releases the primer intact via a cleavage at the RNA-DNA junction. RNA cleavage, primer extension, and primer removal can take place in a single reaction. However, specificity does not require coupling of the three steps and is preserved in the individual reactions. The polypurine primer is generated and removed after its elongation in the absence of DNA synthesis. Furthermore, the polypurine primer is selected among the several RNA fragments available and extended by reverse transcriptase as well as by p51, a short form of reverse transcriptase lacking RNase H activity.