Single-turnover and equilibrium measurements were carried out to determine the basis of the apparently slow, nonprocessive polymerization reaction catalyzed by HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (RT) during transcription initiation, when both the primer and the template are composed of RNA. Comparison of the binding and kinetic parameters of a 20-mer, all-RNA primer/35-mer RNA template substrate to one identical in sequence but composed of a 20-mer, all-DNA primer/35-mer RNA template reveals striking differences. Equilibrium titrations yielded a dissociation constant (K(d)) >200 nM for the RNA/RNA-RT complex which is at least 200-fold higher than that of the DNA/RNA-substrate (Kd ~ 1 nM). The affinity of the RT-RNA/RNA complex for dTTP was found to be at least 500 times lower (K(d) ~ 3.4 mM) than that of the RT-DNA/RNA complex (K(d) ~ 6.6 μM). The single-turnover dNTP incorporation time course using the RNA-primer substrate, the DNA- primer substrate, or a series of RNA-primer substrates preextended with one to eight deoxynucleotides showed that dNTP incorporation occurs with a biphasic exponential burst of +1 extension product, followed by a linear phase. At least three different RT-bound forms of the p/ts exist: a fast, kinetically competent form (single-turnover rate ~10-50 s-1); a slow form (rate ~0.3-1 s-1); and a form that is dead-end (no turnover). The studies further revealed that a switch to a fast, kinetically competent p/t occurs after six dNTPs are incorporated into the RNA primer, with the switch being defined as the transition from a minority to a majority of the p/t bound in the optimal manner.