DNA polymerase activity was assayed in hepatitis B virus (HBV) and core particles isolated from chronic producer lines. The particle-associated DNA polymerase activity, which was found to be limited to incorporation of only a few nucleotides, was inhibited by the 5'-triphosphates of nucleoside analogs. The 1-beta-L (1S,4R) and 1-beta-D (1R,4S) enantiomers of antiviral nucleoside analogs were compared for the ability to inhibit incorporation of natural nucleoside triphosphates into the viral DNA. Previously, both enantiomers of several analogs were found to be substrates for human immunodeficiency virus type 1 reverse transcriptase (HIV RT); the 1-beta-D enantiomers of some pairs were preferred as substrates. In contrast, the 1-beta-L enantiomers of all pairs tested were the more potent inhibitors of labeled substrate incorporation into hepatitis B virus DNA; the concentration required to inhibit the incorporation of the natural substrate by 50% was 6-fold to several hundred-fold lower than the concentration of the 1-beta-D enantiomer required for the same inhibitory effect. This preference for the 1-beta-L enantiomers was observed for both RNA-directed synthesis in core particles and DNA-directed synthesis in viral particles. The observed antiviral effect of the nucleoside analogs in cell culture seemed to be limited chiefly by their phosphorylation in cells.