Evolutionary modelling studies indicate less than a century has passed since the most recent common ancestor of the HIV-1 pandemic strains and, in that time frame, an extraordinarily diverse viral population has developed. HIV-1 employs a multitude of schemes to generate variants: accumulation of base substitutions, insertions and deletions, addition and loss of glycosylation sites in the envelope protein, and recombination. A comparison between HIV and influenza virus illustrates the extraordinary scale of HIV variation, and underscores the importance of exploring innovative HIV vaccine strategies. Deeper understanding of the implications of variation for both antibody and T-cell responses may help in the effort to rationally design vaccines that stimulate broad cross-reactivity. The impact of HIV-1 variation on host immune response is reviewed in this context.