Carbovir (CBV) [the (-)-enantiomer of the carbocyclic analog of 2',3'- dideoxy-2',3'-didehydroguanosine] is a potent inhibitor of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV) replication in vitro. We have characterized the metabolism of CBV and its effect on cellular metabolism in an effort to better understand its mechanism of action. CBV was primarily metabolized to the 5'-triphosphate of CBV (CBV-TP) to concentrations sufficient to inhibit HIV reverse transcriptase. Infection of CEM cells with HIV did not affect the metabolism of CBV. In CEM cells, there was no evidence of the degradation of CBV by purine nucleoside phosphorylase. The half-life of CBV-TP in CEM cells was 2.5 h, similar to that of the 5'-triphosphate of zidovudine (AZT). However, unlike the levels of the 5'-triphosphate of AZT, CBV-TP levels declined without evidence of a plateau. CBV did not affect the metabolism of AZT, and AZT did not affect the metabolism of CBV. A small amount of CBV was incorporated into DNA in intact CEM cells, and this incorporation was increased by incubation with mycophenolic acid, an inhibitor of IMP dehydrogenase. CBV specifically inhibited the incorporation of nucleic acid precursors into DNA but had no effect on the incorporation of radiolabeled precursors into RNA or protein. CBV did not decrease the level of TTP, dGTP, dCTP, or dATP. These results suggested that the cytotoxicity of CBV was due to the inhibition of DNA synthesis. Further studies are necessary to identify the target(s) responsible for growth inhibition.