We tested the ability of the thymidine analog 3'-azido-3'-deoxythymidine (BWA509U) to inhibit the replication of the retrovirus avian leukosis virus. Inhibition was measured with two different assays: inhibition of a single round of virus replication and inhibition of virus spread through a cell culture. With both assays, we detected inhibition of virus growth, although inhibition of a single round of virus replication required a 40-fold higher drug concentration than did inhibition of virus spread. We also detected variations in the concentrations of drug needed to inhibit virus replication in different cell types. Higher concentrations of drug were needed to inhibit virus replication in chicken embryo fibroblasts than in the continuous quail cell line QT6. Viral DNA synthesis in infected cells was shown to be inhibited in the presence of the drug. The triphosphate form of the analog acted as a competitive inhibitor of purified viral reverse transcriptase, with a Ki of 0.09 +/- 0.003 microM, and was incorporated as a chain terminator during reverse transcription of the natural viral RNA substrate in vitro.