DNA polymerase beta (pol beta) is the smallest and least complex DNA polymerase. The structure of the enzyme is well understood, but little is known about its catalytic properties, particularly processivity and fidelity. Pre-steady-state analysis of the incorporation of a single nucleotide into a short 25/45 oligonucleotide primer-template by pol beta was used to define the kinetic parameters of the polymerase. In addition, nucleotide analogs and site-specific mutants, along with structural analyses, were used to probe the structure-function relationship of pol beta. Several significant findings have been obtained: (i) The catalysis by pol beta is processive and displays an initial burst under pre-steady-state conditions, but the processivity is poor compared to other polymerases. (ii) The fidelity of pol beta is also low relative to other polymerases. (iii) Under pre-steady-state conditions the chemical step appears to be only partially rate-limiting on the basis of the low thio effect (4.3), defined as kpol(dNTP)/kpol(dNTP alpha S). The thio effect increases to 9 for incorporation of an incorrect nucleotide. These results are consistent with the existence of a substrate-induced conformational change that is also partially rate-limiting. (iv) A comparison between the two-dimensional NMR spectra of the wild-type and mutant enzymes indicates that the mutations at position 283 did not significantly perturb the structure of the enzyme. The conformational stability of the mutants is also unperturbed. Thus, R283 is not important to the overall structure of the enzyme. (v) The results of kinetic analyses of R283A and R283K mutants indicate that the hydrogen bond between R283 of pol beta and the template is important for catalysis. Both R283A and R283K mutants displayed decreases in catalytic efficiency by a factor of ca. 200 relative to wild-type pol beta. The mutants are also less faithful by a factor of 2-4, in terms of the T-G mispair vs the T-A correct pair. The perturbation, however, could occur at both the implied conformational step and the chemical step, since the thio effects of the mutants for both correct and incorrect nucleotides are similar to those of WT pol beta.