The relationship between human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) type 1 reverse transcriptase tG:T mispair formation and base pair stability was investigated using DNA and RNA templates with 15 bp matched or mismatched DNA primers. tG:T mispair formation during primer elongation was undetectable on tDNA-DNA duplexes but occurred with a frequency of 10(-4) on matched tRNA-DNA duplexes. The frequency increased to 7.0 x 10(-4) and 1.3 x 10(-3) on tRNA-DNA duplexes with tG:T mismatches located 6 and 9 bp beyond the polymerization site. From Km values at 37 degrees C, the free energy change upon dissociation (delta G degrees 37) of the tG:T mispair increased from matched to mismatched tRNA-DNA duplexes by 0.36-1.21 kcal/mol. delta G degrees 37 for a correct tG:C pair decreased by 0.06-1.00 kcal/mol. In comparison with DNA-DNA duplexes, thermal melting measurements on RNA-DNA duplexes demonstrated smaller enthalpy (delta delta H degrees = -17.7 to -28.1 kcal/mol) and entropy (delta delta S degrees = -59.3 to -83.4 cal/mol/K) components. A strong entropy-enthalpy compensation resulted in small free energy differences (delta delta G degrees 37 = 0.8 to -2.2 kcal/mol). Thus, although DNA-DNA and RNA-DNA duplexes are of comparable stability in solution, the RNA-DNA duplex presents more facile base pair opening and higher conformational flexibility. The release of helical strain at constant helix stability in RNA-DNA duplexes may facilitate base mispairing during reverse transcription, particularly in the context of lentiviral G-->A hypermutation.