From a series of phosphonylmethoxyalkylpurine and -pyrimidine derivatives, (S)-1-(3-hydroxy-2-phosphonylmethoxypropyl)cytosine [(S)-HPMPC] emerged as a particularly potent and selective inhibitor of the replication of human cytomegalovirus (CMV). Its potency against CMV was similar to that of the structurally related adenine derivative (S)-HPMPA but higher than that of the reference compounds phosphonoformate and 9-(1,3-dihydroxy-2-propoxymethyl)guanine (DHPG). The minimum concentrations of phosphonoformate, DHPG, (S)-HPMPA, and (S)-HPMPC required to inhibit CMV plaque formation by 50% were 15, 0.7, 0.1, and 0.07 microgram/ml, respectively. The selectivity indices of phosphonoformate, DHPG, (S)-HPMPA, and (S)-HPMPC, as determined by the ratio of the 50% inhibitory concentration for cell growth to the 50% inhibitory concentration for plaque formation for CMV (AD-169 strain), were 14, 150, 200 and 1,500, respectively. Corresponding values for the CMV Davis strain were 20, 200, 100, and 1,000, respectively. (S)-HPMPC was inhibitory to CMV plaque formation even when added to the cells at 24 or 48 h postinfection. When (S)-HPMPC was added immediately postinfection, a 24- or 48-h incubation time sufficed to obtain a marked inhibitory effect on CMV replication. Such limited incubation time was insufficient for DHPG to achieve any protection against CMV.