AIDS is a disorder characterized by a slow progressive impairment of immune function and by infection of human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV-1, HIV-2)1-4. Our knowledge of how these viruses cause disease in man, or how the related lentiviruses (visna and equine infectious anaemia virus) cause disease in animals, is still fragmentary. In particular, the significance of genetic variation in HIV-1, occurring within populations, within individuals and over periods of time5,6, and the mechanisms of viral persistence remain unclear. To address these issues we prepared a series of proviral clones of HIV-1 originating from a single patient and compared their biological properties. Here we show that hybrid genomes (in which the envelope region of six viral clones were separately substituted into a prototype HIV-1 genome) generated viruses with widely differing capacity to grow in human T cells, cell lines and monocytoid cultures. These data suggest that extensive biological variation exists in vivo within an infected individual and is in part determined at the level of the viral envelope. © 1988 Nature Publishing Group.