We have examined the kinetics of incorporation of acyclovir triphosphate by the herpes simplex virus-1 DNA polymerase holoenzyme (Pol-UL42) and the human mitochondrial DNA polymerase using transient kinetic methods. For each enzyme, we compared the kinetic parameters for acyclovir to those governing incorporation of dGTP. The favorable ground state dissociation constant (6 microM) and rate of polymerization (10 s(-1)) afford efficient incorporation of acyclovir triphosphate by the Pol-UL42 enzyme. A discrimination factor of approximately 50 favors dGTP over acyclovir triphosphate, mostly due to a faster maximum rate of dGTP incorporation. Once incorporated, acyclovir is removed with a half-life of approximately 1 h in the presence of a normal concentration of deoxynucleoside triphosphates, leading to a high toxicity index (16,000) toward viral replication. To assess the potential for toxicity toward the host we examined the incorporation and removal of acyclovir triphosphate by the human mitochondrial DNA polymerase. These results suggest moderate inhibition of mitochondrial DNA replication defining a toxicity index of 380. This value is much higher than the value of 1.5 determined for tenofovir, another acyclic nucleoside analog. The enzymatic therapeutic index is only 42 in favoring inhibition of the viral polymerase over polymerase gamma, whereas that for tenofovir is greater than 1,200. Mitochondrial toxicity is relatively low because acyclovir is activated only in infected cells by the promiscuous viral thymidine kinase and otherwise, mitochondrial toxicity would accumulate during long term treatment.