KNI-272 is a powerful HIV-1 protease inhibitor with a reported inhibition constant in the picomolar range. In this paper, a complete experimental dissection of the thermodynamic forces that define the binding affinity of this inhibitor to the wild-type and drug-resistant mutant V82F/184V is presented. Unlike other protease inhibitors, KNI-272 binds to the protease with a favorable binding enthalpy. The origin of the favorable binding enthalpy has been traced to the coupling of the binding reaction to the burial of six water molecules. These bound water molecules, previously identified by NMR studies, optimize the atomic packing at the inhibitor/protein interface enhancing van der Waals and other favorable interactions. These interactions offset the unfavorable enthalpy usually associated with the binding of hydrophobic molecules. The association constant to the drug resistant mutant is 100-500 times weaker. The decrease in binding affinity corresponds to an increase in the Gibbs energy of binding of 3-3.5 kcal/mol, which originates from less favorable enthalpy (1.7 kcal/mol more positive) and entropy changes. Calorimetric binding experiments performed as a function of pH and utilizing buffers with different ionization enthalpies have permitted the dissection of proton linkage effects. According to these experiments, the binding of the inhibitor is linked to the protonation/deprotonation of two groups. In the uncomplexed form these groups have pKs of 6.0 and 4.8, and become 6.6 and 2.9 in the complex. These groups have been identified as one of the aspartates in the catalytic aspartyl dyad in the protease and the isoquinoline nitrogen in the inhibitor molecule. The binding affinity is maximal between pH 5 and pH 6. At those pH values the affinity is close to 6 x 10(10) M(-1) (Kd = 16 pM). Global analysis of the data yield a buffer- and pH-independent binding enthalpy of -6.3 kcal/mol. Under conditions in which the exchange of protons is zero, the Gibbs energy of binding is -14.7 kcal/mol from which a binding entropy of 28 cal/K mol is obtained. Thus, the binding of KNI-272 is both enthalpically and entropically favorable. The structure-based thermodynamic analysis indicates that the allophenylnorstatine nucleus of KNI-272 provides an important scaffold for the design of inhibitors that are less susceptible to resistant mutations.