The fluorescent nucleotide analog, 2',3'-trinitrophenyladenosine-5'-triphosphate (TNP-ATP), was utilized to quantify the affinities of human immunodeficiency virus-1 reverse transcriptase (HIV-1 RT) for its substrates. Interaction of this probe with the enzyme brings about a twofold increase in the magnitude of fluorescence emission from the probe, and a blue-shift in wavelength maximum, from 561 to 553 nm. TNP-ATP binds HIV-1 RT with a dissociation constant of 21 microM. The presence of millimolar levels of deoxynucleoside triphosphates or micromolar levels of an oligonucleotide primer analogue, p(dT)12-18, suppressed this enhancement of fluorescence. The fact that inhibition was achieved with much lower levels of primer than of dNTPs suggests that TNP-ATP is a probe for the binding site of primer on the enzyme, rather than that of deoxynucleoside triphosphate. In support of this, the effect of TNP-ATP on the kinetics of DNA synthesis catalyzed by the enzyme indicated that the probe is a competitive inhibitor with respect to template-primer. The ability of primers and primer analogs to reverse the fluorescence enhancement was determined, and the corresponding affinities of these compounds for reverse transcriptase were calculated. The affinity increased with primer length, increasing more than 50-fold from a span of 5 to 15 nucleotide residues. The interaction of polydeoxynucleotides was consistent with a model in which the enzyme bound at adjacent internal sites of about 15 residues in length. Several mammalian and bacterial transfer RNA primers were tested, including the natural primer, tRNA(3Lys). The affinities were found to be between 0.55 and 1.2 microM, with no obvious selectivity for the natural primer, which had a Kd of 0.79 microM. These results are discussed within the context of data for HIV-1 RT obtained by other methodologies.