4'-Azidothymidine (ADRT) is a novel nucleoside analog, that selectively inhibits human immunodeficiency virus replication in human lymphocytes. Unlike the dideoxyribonucleoside analogs and 3'-azido-2',3'-dideoxythymidine (AZT), ADRT retains the 3'-hydroxy group. The pathways of ADRT metabolism were elucidated by determining: (i) the kinetics of the interactions of ADRT and its metabolites with enzymes of thymidine metabolic pathways, (ii) the pool sizes of phosphorylated metabolites, and (iii) the nature of ADRT incorporation into human DNA. ADRT is not a substrate for thymidine phosphorylase, but is metabolized by kinases. Thymidine kinase phosphorylates ADRT to ADRT monophosphate (ADRT-MP). For this enzyme, ADRT has a Ki value of 5.2 microM, in comparison to a Km value of 0.7 microM for thymidine. The Km value of ADRT toward thymidine kinase is 8.3 microM and the rate of ADRT phosphorylation is 1.4% that of thymidine phosphorylation. ADRT-MP has a low affinity toward thymidylate kinase (a Ki value of 28.9 microM versus a Km value of 0.56 microM for thymidylate), and toward thymidylate synthase (a Ki value of 180 microM versus a Km value of 8 microM for deoxyuridylate). The results suggest that ADRT can be activated effectively by cellular kinases without significant interference of normal thymidine metabolism. In cultured human lymphocytes (A3.01, H9, and U937 cells), ADRT was phosphorylated efficiently to ADRT 5'-triphosphate (ADRT-TP), which is the major metabolite of ADRT. The intracellular concentrations of ADRT-TP ranged from 1 to 3.3 microM after 24 h of incubation with 2 microM of ADRT and the half-life of ADRT-TP varied from 3 to 6 h. Although ADRT-TP is a poor competitive inhibitor against dTTP toward DNA polymerases alpha and beta with Ki values of 62.5 and 150 microM, respectively. ADRT-MP was found to be internally incorporated into cellular DNA. The extent of ADRT-MP substitution for dTMP in DNA was 1 in 6979 for A3.01 cells incubated with 2.9 microM ADRT for 24 h. Internal incorporation of ADRT-MP contrasts with the mechanism of other 2',3'-dideoxynucleoside analogs (i.e. AZT, ddC, ddI, d4T...), which are DNA chain terminators. This finding indicates that a 3'-deoxy structure in a nucleoside analog is not a prerequisite for anti-human immunodeficiency virus activity.