The rate-limiting step for nucleotide incorporation in the pre-steady state for most nucleic acid polymerases is thought to be a conformational change. As a result, very little information is available on the role of active-site residues in the chemistry of nucleotidyl transfer. For the poliovirus RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (3D(pol)), chemistry is partially (Mg(2+)) or completely (Mn(2+)) rate limiting. Here we show that nucleotidyl transfer depends on two ionizable groups with pK(a) values of 7.0 or 8.2 and 10.5, depending upon the divalent cation used in the reaction. A solvent deuterium isotope effect of three to seven was observed on the rate constant for nucleotide incorporation in the pre-steady state; none was observed in the steady state. Proton-inventory experiments were consistent with two protons being transferred during the rate-limiting transition state of the reaction, suggesting that both deprotonation of the 3'-hydroxyl nucleophile and protonation of the pyrophosphate leaving group occur in the transition state for phosphodiester bond formation. Importantly, two proton transfers occur in the transition state for nucleotidyl-transfer reactions catalyzed by RB69 DNA-dependent DNA polymerase, T7 DNA-dependent RNA polymerase and HIV reverse transcriptase. Interpretation of these data in the context of known polymerase structures suggests the existence of a general base for deprotonation of the 3'-OH nucleophile, although use of a water molecule cannot be ruled out conclusively, and a general acid for protonation of the pyrophosphate leaving group in all nucleic acid polymerases. These data imply an associative-like transition-state structure.