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In human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-infected individuals, the proportion of circulating mononuclear cells (PBMCs) which carry HIV provirus and the number of HIV proviral sequences per infected PBMC have been matters for conjecture. Using a double polymerase chain reaction which allows the detection of single molecules of provirus and a method of quantifying the provirus molecules, we have measured provirus frequencies in infected individuals down to a level of one molecule per 10(6) PBMCs. As a general rule, only a small proportion of PBMCs contain provirus (median value of samples from 12 patients, one per 8,000 cells), and most if not all of the infected cells carry a single provirus molecule. The frequency of provirus-carrying cells correlated positively both with the progression of the disease and with the success with which virus could be isolated from the same patients by cocultivation methods. Of seven asymptomatic (Centers for Disease Control stage II) patients, all but one contained one provirus molecule per 6,000 to 80,000 cells; of five Centers for Disease Control stage IV patients, all but one contained one provirus molecule per 700 to 3,300 cells. When considered in conjunction with estimates of the frequency of PBMCs that express viral RNA, our results suggest that either (i) the majority of provirus-containing cells are monocytes or (ii) most provirus-containing lymphocytes are transcriptionally inactive. We also present nucleotide sequence data derived directly from provirus present in vivo which we show is not marred by the in vitro selection of potential virus variants or by errors introduced by Taq polymerase. We argue from these data that, of the provirus present in infected individuals, the proportion which is defective is not high in the regions sequenced.