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To explore the roles played by specific human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) genes in determining the in vivo replicative capacity of AIDS viruses, we have examined the replication kinetics and virus-specific immune responses in rhesus monkeys following infection with two chimeric simian/human immunodeficiency viruses (SHIVs). These viruses were composed of simian immunodeficiency virus SIVmac239 expressing HIV-1 env and the associated auxiliary HIV-1 genes tat, vpu, and rep. Virus replication was assessed during primary infection of rhesus monkeys by measuring plasma SIVmac p27 levels and by quantifying virus replication in lymph nodes using in situ hybridization. SHIV-HXBc2, which expresses the HIV-1 env of a T-cell-tropic, laboratory-adapted strain of HIV-1 (HXBc2), replicated well in rhesus monkey peripheral blood leukocytes (PBL) in vitro but replicated only to low levels when inoculated in rhesus monkeys. In contrast, SHIV-89.6 was constructed with the HIV-1 env gene of a T-cell- and macrophage-tropic clone of a patient isolate of HIV-1 (89.6). This virus replicated to a lower level in monkey PBL in vitro but replicated to a higher degree in monkeys during primary infection. Moreover, monkeys infected with SHIV-89.6 developed an inversion in the PBL CD4/CD8 ratio coincident with the clearance of primary viremia. The differences in the in vivo consequences of infection by these two SHIVs could not be explained by differences in the immune responses elicited by these viruses, since infected animals had comparable type-specific neutralizing antibody titers, proliferative responses to recombinant HIV-1 gp120, and virus-specific cytolytic effector T-cell responses. With the demonstration that a chimeric SHIV can replicate to high levels during primary infection in rhesus monkeys, this model can now be used to define genetic determinants of HIV-1 pathogenicity.