Hepadnavirus polymerases initiate reverse transcription in a protein-primed reaction that involves the covalent linkage of the first deoxyribonucleotide to the polymerase polypeptide. Analysis of the initial steps in this reaction as well as certain details of genome replication has been hampered by the difficulties encountered in the expression of functional hepadnavirus polymerases in heterologous systems. We have expressed human hepatitis B virus (HBV) polymerase (pol) in insect cells, using the recombinant baculovirus system. Analysis of immunoaffinity-purified pol indicated that (i) a portion of pol had initiated minus-strand DNA synthesis within infected insect cells; (ii) the pol mRNA appeared to be the template for reverse transcription; (iii) the products were small (100 to 500 nucleotides); (iv) only minus-strand DNA was synthesized; (v) the products were covalently bound to protein; and (vi) the 5' end of the minus-strand DNA mapped to DR1 by primer extension. The purified pol was also active in an in vitro polymerase assay. Analyses suggested that a different fraction of pol was active in the in vitro assays. Incubation of pol with labeled deoxyribonucleotide triphosphates resulted in the labeling of the pol polypeptide in a reaction that appeared to represent in vitro nucleotide priming. In vitro nucleotide priming was confirmed by the appearance of 32P-labeled phosphotyrosine on pol following in vitro reactions with 32P-labeled deoxyribonucleotide triphosphates. The ability to purify significant quantities of HBV pol will facilitate functional and physical analysis of this enzyme as well as the search for novel inhibitors of HBV replication.