The carbocyclic analog of 2'-deoxyguanosine (CdG) is active against herpes simplex virus (HSV), human cytomegalovirus, and human hepatitis-B virus. In order to understand the mechanism of action of this compound against HSV, we have evaluated (a) the incorporation of [3H]CdG into viral and host DNA in HEp-2 cells infected with HSV and (b) the interaction of the 5'-triphosphate of CdG (CdG-TP) with the HSV DNA polymerase and human DNA polymerases alpha, beta, and gamma (EC 188.8.131.52). Incubation of HSV-1-infected HEp-2 cells with [3H]CdG resulted in the incorporation of CdG into both the HSV and the host cell DNA. These results indicated that CdG-TP was used as a substrate for HSV DNA polymerase and for at least one of the cellular DNA polymerases. Degradation of both viral and host DNA with micrococcal nuclease and spleen phosphodiesterase indicated that CdG was incorporated primarily into internal positions in both DNAs. The viral DNA containing CdG sedimented in neutral and alkaline sucrose gradients in the same way as did viral DNA labeled with [3H]thymidine, indicating that the HSV DNA containing CdG was similar in size to untreated HSV DNA. CdG-TP was a competitive inhibitor of the incorporation of dGTP into DNA by the HSV DNA polymerase (Ki of 0.35 microM) and the human DNA polymerase alpha (Ki of 1 microM). CdG-TP was not a potent inhibitor of either DNA polymerase beta or gamma. Using DNA-sequencing technology, CdG-TP was found to be an efficient substrate for HSV DNA polymerase. Incorporation of CdG monophosphate (CdG-MP) into the DNA by HSV DNA polymerase did not interfere with subsequent chain extension. These results suggested that the antiviral activity of CdG was due to its incorporation into the DNA and subsequent disruption of viral functions. In contrast, CdG-TP was not as good as dGTP as a substrate for DNA synthesis by DNA polymerase alpha, and incorporation of CdG-MP by DNA polymerase alpha inhibited further DNA chain elongation.