The interactions of calf thymus DNA polymerase alpha (pol alpha) with primer/templates were examined. Simply changing the primer from DNA to RNA had little effect on primer/template binding or dNTP polymerization (Km, Vmax and processivity). Surprisingly, however, adding a 5'-triphosphate to the primer greatly changed its interactions with pol alpha (binding, Vmax and Km and processivity). While changing the primer from DNA to RNA greatly altered the abilit of pol alpha to discriminate against nucleotide analogs, it did not compromise the ability of pol alpha to discriminate against non-cognate dNTPs. Thus the nature of the primer appears to affect 'sugar fidelity', without altering 'base fidelity'. DNase protection assays showed that pol alpha strongly protected 9 nt of the primer strand, 13 nt of the duplex template strand and 14 nt of the single-stranded template from hydrolysis by DNase I and weakly protected several bases outside this core region. This large DNA binding domain may account for the ability of a 5'-triphosphate on RNA primers to alter the catalytic properties of pol alpha.