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During retroviral reverse transcription the genomic RNA is degraded by the RNase H activity of reverse transcriptase (RT). Previous results suggest that after RNA-directed DNA synthesis, fragments of RNA remain annealed to the newly synthesized DNA [DeStefano et al.(1991) J. Biol.Chem. 266, 7423-7431]. These must be removed to allow synthesis of the second DNA strand. We measured the ability of HIV-, AMV- and MuLV-RT to coordinate DNA-dependent DNA synthesis and removal of downstream segments of RNA. The substrates employed were DNA templates having upstream DNA and downstream RNA primers. We found that none of the wild type RTs elongated the upstream DNA without simultaneous degradation of the RNA. Consistent with these results, HIV-, AMV- and MuLV-RT showed relatively higher affinity for RNA than for DNA oligonucleotides bound to a DNA template. Differences were observed in the RNA degradation and DNA extension patterns generated by the different RTs. AMV-RT degraded the RNA to segments 11-12 nt long, and readily elongated the upstream DNA to the end of the template. MuLV- and HIV-RT degraded the RNA primarily to segments 15-16 nt long. At low concentrations of the latter two RTs, the DNA primer stalled when it encountered the 5'-end of the RNA. In sufficient excess, all of the RTs elongated the upstream primer without stalling. Even though we were unable to detect displacement of the downstream RNA by the wild type RTs, MuLV- and HIV-RT lacking RNase H, were able to elongate the upstream DNA to the end of the template without degradation of the RNA. This suggests that degradation of downstream pieces of RNA is not absolutely required before synthesis of the plus strand DNA. The implications of these findings for viral replication are discussed.