The N-2 atom of guanine (G) is susceptible to modification by various carcinogens. Oligonucleotides with increasing bulk at this position were analyzed for fidelity and catalytic efficiency with the processive DNA polymerases human immunodeficiency virus, type 1, reverse transcriptase (RT), and bacteriophage T7 exonuclease(-) (T7(-)). RT and T7(-) effectively bypassed N(2)-methyl(Me)G and readily extended primers but were strongly blocked by N(2)-ethyl(Et)G, N(2)-isobutylG, N(2)-benzylG, and N(2)-methyl(9-anthracenyl)G. Steady-state kinetics of single nucleotide incorporation by RT and T7(-) showed a decrease of 10(3) in k(cat)/K(m) for dCTP incorporation opposite N(2)-MeG and a further large decrease opposite N(2)-EtG. Misincorporation frequency was increased 10(2)-10(3)-fold by a Me group and another approximately 10(3)-fold by an Et group. dATP was preferentially incorporated opposite bulky N(2)-alkylG molecules. N(2)-MeG attenuated the pre-steady-state kinetic bursts with RT and T7(-), and N(2)-EtG eliminated the bursts. Large elemental effects with thio-dCTP(alphaS) were observed with N(2)-EtG (6- and 72-fold decreases) but were much less with N(2)-MeG, indicating that the N(2)-Et group may affect the rate of the chemistry step (phosphodiester bond formation). Similar values of K(d(dCTP)) and K(d(DNA)) and k(off) rates of DNA substrates from RT and T7(-) indicate that ground-state binding and dissociation rates are not considerably affected by the bulk. We conclude that even a Me group at the guanine N-2 atom can cause a profound interfering effect on the fidelity and efficiency; an Et or larger group causes preferential misincorporation and strong blockage of replicative polymerases, probably at and before the chemistry step, demonstrating the role of bulk in DNA lesions.