OUR understanding of the biology and origins of human immunodeficiency virus type 2 (HIV-2) derives from studies of cultured isolates from urban populations experiencing epidemic infection and disease1-8. To test the hypothesis that such isolates might represent only a subset of a larger, genetically more diverse group of viruses, we used nested polymerase chain reactions to characterize HIV-2 sequences in uncultured mononuclear blood cells of two healthy Liberian agricultural workers, from whom virus isolation was repeatedly unsuccessful, and from a culture-positive symptomatic urban dweller. Analysis of pol, env and long terminal repeat regions revealed the presence of three highly divergent HIV-2 strains, one of which (from one of the healthy subjects) was significantly more closely related to simian immunodeficiency viruses infecting sooty mangabeys and rhesus macaques (SIVSM/SIV MAC) than to any virus of human derivation. This subject also harboured multiply defective viral genotypes that resulted from hypermutation of G to A bases. Our results indicate that HIV-2, SIVSM and SIV MAC comprise a single, highly diverse group of lentiviruses which cannot be separated into distinct phylogenetic lineages according to species of origin. © 1992 Nature Publishing Group.