Psychotrine dihydrogen oxalate and O-methylpsychotrine sulfate heptahydrate (MP), the salts of isoquinoline alkaloids from ipecac, were found to be potent inhibitors of the DNA polymerase activity of human immunodeficiency virus-1 reverse transcriptase (HIV-1 RT). We currently report the results of additional studies designed to characterize the mechanism of inhibition facilitated by MP. The inhibition was noncompetitive with respect to TTP and uncompetitive with respect to poly(rA) and oligo(dT)12-18 (4:1) at low template-primer concentrations but competitive at high concentrations (greater than 200 microM). Identical non-Michaelis-type kinetics were observed when activated DNA was used as the template. The biphasic nature of the double-reciprocal plots and Hill coefficients of less than 1 indicate that MP functions as an allosteric inhibitor of the enzyme which appears to possess multiple active sites that interact in a cooperative (negative) fashion in the presence of the inhibitor. MP was selective for the recombinant HIV-1 RT (p66) utilizing poly(rA) and oligo(dT)12-18 (4:1) as template-primer. Greater inhibition was observed with this template primer as compared with other natural and synthetic template-primers tested. MP had significantly less effect on avian myeloblastosis virus RT as well as mammalian or bacterial DNA and RNA polymerases. Other members of the ipecac class of alkaloids, e.g. emetine hydrochloride, were inactive against all of these enzymes, including HIV-1 RT. Conversely, MP did not inhibit in vitro protein synthesis, a property manifested by all the other ipecac alkaloids tested. Studies conducted with structural analogs revealed that the imine functionality at positions 1' and 2' of MP is the key structural requirement for HIV-1 RT inhibitory activity. Therefore, MP appears to possess unique structural properties that enable interaction with HIV-1 RT in a manner that can be differentiated from other polymerases. Use of these alkaloids for the definition of this viral enzyme-specific topology may lead to the development of therapeutically useful chemotherapeutic agents.