The replicative cycle of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is reviewed, and currently used and investigational agents directed against the virus are discussed. The first step in the replication of HIV is selective binding of the envelope glycoprotein to CD4 receptors located on T lymphocytes. The virion is then uncoated within the cytoplasm, yielding viral genomic RNA. Reverse transcriptase uses the viral RNA as a template to form single-stranded DNA, which is duplicated to form proviral DNA through the activity of ribonuclease H. Host RNA polymerases transcribe the integrated proviral DNA into messenger RNA, and there is subsequent translation to viral proteins. After translation, further modification of precursor polyproteins is necessary to produce functional peptides. The assembled virus then buds from the cell surface and invades other cells. Targets of drug intervention in the replicative cycle include (1) binding and entry, (2) reverse transcriptase, (3) transcription and translation, and (4) viral maturation and budding. Inhibitors of binding and entry include recombinant soluble CD4, immunoadhesins, peptide T, and hypericin. Nucleoside reverse-transcriptase inhibitors include zidovudine, didanosine, zalcitabine, and stavudine. Foscarnet, tetrahydroimidazobenzo-diazepinthione compounds, and nevirapine are some non-nucleoside reverse-transcriptase inhibitors. Inhibitors of transcription and translation include antagonists of the tat gene and GLQ223. Castanospermine, N-butyldeoxynojirimycin, and protease inhibitors interfere with viral maturation and budding. Drug combinations that have been or are being investigated include zidovudine plus interferon alfa, zidovudine plus zalcitabine, and zidovudine plus didanosine. Four agents currently have approved labeling for use against HIV infection: zidovudine, didanosine, zalcitabine, and stavudine. Monotherapy with zidovudine remains the treatment of first choice. Although progress has been made in developing drug therapies for HIV infection, more selective and more potent drugs are urgently needed. The best approach at present is to optimize the use of available agents, continue to investigate new therapies, and educate the public about prevention.