In a study of genetic variation in the AIDS virus, HTLV-III/LAV, sequential virus isolates from persistently infected individuals were examined by Southern blot genomic analysis, molecular cloning, and nucleotide sequencing. Four to six virus isolates were obtained from each of three individuals over a 1-year or 2-year period. Changes were detected throughout the viral genomes and consisted of isolated and clustered nucleotide point mutations as well as short deletions or insertions. Results from genomic restriction mapping and nucleotide sequence comparisons indicated that viruses isolated sequentially had evolved in parallel from a common progenitor virus. The rate of evolution of HTLV-III/LAV was estimated to be at least 10(-3) nucleotide substitutions per site per year for the env gene and 10(-4) for the gag gene, values a millionfold greater than for most DNA genomes. Despite this relatively rapid rate of sequence divergence, virus isolates from any one patient were all much more related to each other than to viruses from other individuals. In view of the substantial heterogeneity among most independent HTLV-III/LAV isolates, the repeated isolation from a given individual of only highly related viruses raises the possibility that some type of interference mechanism may prevent simultaneous infection by more than one major genotypic form of the virus.