Mycobacterium avium, the most common opportunistic pathogen in patients with AIDS, is frequently isolated from a variety of environmental sources, but rarely can these environmental isolates be epidemiologically linked with isolates known to cause human disease. Using a number of in vitro tissue culture assays, we found significant pathogenic differences between a serotype 4 human clinical M. avium isolate and a serotype 2 veterinary isolate. Cell association of the patient strain with a human intestinal cell line was 1.7 times that of the veterinary strain. Growth of this clinical strain in human peripheral blood mononuclear cell-derived macrophages increased from 12-fold higher than that of the veterinary isolate after 2 days to 200-fold higher after 4 days. By the conclusion of each experiment, lysis of all examined host cell types and accumulation of cell debris were observed in infections with the human isolate, but monolayers remained relatively intact in the presence of the animal isolate. The two strains also differed in the ability to stimulate human immunodeficiency virus replication in coinfected host cells, with p24 antigen levels after 6 days threefold higher in the cells coinfected with the clinical strain than in those infected with the veterinary strain. If the genetic differences responsible for the phenotypes observed in these assays can be identified and characterized, it may be possible to determine which M. avium strains in the environment are potential human pathogens.