The triphosphate form of 9-[(2-hydroxyethoxy)-methyl]guanine (acyclovir), ACVTP, inactivates the herpes simplex virus type 1 DNA polymerase. ACVTP does not innately inactivate resting polymerase, but becomes an inactivator only while being processed as an alternative substrate. Pseudo first-order rates of inactivation were measured at varying concentrations of ACVTP and fixed concentrations of the natural substrate, deoxyguanosine triphosphate. These studies indicated that a reversible enzyme-ACVTP (Michaelis-type) complex is formed at the active site prior to inactivation. The formation of this complex was competitively retarded by deoxyguanosine triphosphate. An apparent dissociation constant (KD) of 3.6 +/- 0.2 (S.D.) nM was determined for ACVTP from this reversible complex. A second method for the estimation of the KD which used the extrapolated initial velocities produced a value of 5.9 +/- 0.4 (S.D.) nM. The rate of conversion of the reversible complex to the inactivated complex, at saturating ACVTP, was calculated to be 0.24 min-1. No reactivation of enzyme activity was detected following isolation of the inactivated complex by rapid desalting on Sephadex G-25. Under these conditions, an overall reactivation rate of 1.5 X 10(-5) min-1 could have been easily detected. Therefore, the overall inhibition constant must have been less than 3 pM. In contrast, when host DNA polymerase alpha was incubated with 14 microM ACVTP, only 60% inhibition of enzyme activity was observed, but inactivation was not detected. These data indicate that ACVTP functions as a suicide inactivator of the herpes simplex virus type 1 DNA polymerase, and is only a weak reversible inhibitor of DNA polymerase alpha.