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Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) virion RNA and proviral DNA sequences have been examined over a 1-year period in an HIV-seropositive patient, commencing with the start of zidovudine treatment. By characterizing the variable V3 and V4 env domains, four related but structurally discrete genotypes could be identified prior to the start of therapy and during the subsequent 60-week period of therapy. Each of the four subtypes showed a unique pattern in the preservation of glycosylation sites. A comparison of the V3 amino acid sequences in peripheral blood mononuclear cell proviral DNA and plasma virion RNA at 0, 24, 36, and 60 weeks demonstrated that proviral DNA did not serve as a predictor of the structure of virion RNA. HIV virion RNA subtype 3 was the most prevalent virion RNA subtype at three of the four periods studied, yet no corresponding proviral DNA was detected. Other virion subtypes have been observed, but only on a transient basis. The present data are consistent with a model of HIV infection in which related but different HIV substrains coexist and evolve independently within an individual. Characterization of virion RNA may be required to identify the unique properties of the virus involved in disease progression; characterization of proviral DNA will not yield this information.