Using a continuous drug pressure protocol, we induced pentamidine resistance in an active and dividing population of amastigote forms of Leishmania mexicana. We selected in vitro two clones with different levels of resistance to pentamidine, with clone LmPENT5 being resistant to 5 microM pentamidine, while clone LmPENT20 was resistant to 20 microM pentamidine. Resistance indexes (50% inhibitory concentration [IC50] after drug presure/IC50 before drug pressure) of 2 (LmPENT5) and 6 (LmPENT20) were determined after drug selection. Both resistant clones expressed significant cross-resistance to diminazene aceturate and primaquine. Pentamidine resistance was not reversed by verapamil, a calcium channel blocker known to reverse multidrug resistance (A. J. Bitonti, et al., Science 242:1301-1303, 1988; A. R. C. Safa et al., J. Biol. Chem. 262:7884-7888, 1987). No difference in the in vitro infectivity for resident mouse macrophages was observed between the wild-type clone (clone LmWT) and pentamidine-resistant clones. During in vitro infectivity experiments, when the life cycle was performed starting from the intramacrophagic amastigote stage, the drug resistance of the resulting LmPENT20 amastigotes was preserved even if the intermediate promastigote stage could not be considered resistant to 20 microM pentamidine. In the same way, when a complete developmental sequence of L. mexicana was achieved axenically by manipulation of appropriate culture conditions, the resulting axenically grown LmPENT20 amastigotes remained pentamidine resistant, whereas LmPENT5 amastigotes lost their ability to resist pentamidine, with IC50s and index of resistance values close to those for the LmWT clone. These results strongly indicate that the level of pentamidine tolerated by resistant amastigotes after the life cycle was dependent on the induced level of resistance. This fact could be significant in the in vivo transmission of drug-resistant parasites by Phlebotominae. Particular attention should be given to the finding that the emergence of parasite resistance is a potential risk of the use of inadequate doses as therapy in humans.