We have determined the nucleotide sequence of the 5' noncoding (NC) region of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) genome in 44 isolates from around the world. We have identified several HCV isolates with significantly greater sequence heterogeneity than reported previously within the 5' NC region. The most distantly related isolates were only 90.1% identical. Nucleotide insertions were seen in three isolates. Analysis of the nucleotide sequence from 44 HCV isolates in this study combined with that of 37 isolates reported in the literature reveals that the 5' NC region of HCV consists of highly conserved domains interspersed with variable domains. The consensus sequence was identical to the prototype HCV sequence. Nucleotide variations were found in 45 (16%) of the 282 nucleotide positions analyzed and were primarily located in three domains of significant heterogeneity (positions -239 to -222, -167 to -118, and -100 to -72). Conversely, there were three highly conserved domains consisting of 18, 22, and 63 completely invariant nucleotides (positions -263 to -246, -199 to -178, and -65 to -3, respectively). Two nucleotide domains within the 5' NC region, conserved among all HCV isolates studied to date, shared statistically significant similarity with pestivirus 5' NC sequences, providing further evidence for a close evolutionary relationship between these two groups of viruses. Additional analysis revealed the presence of short open reading frames in all HCV isolates. Our sequence analysis of the 5' NC region of the HCV genome provides additional information about conserved elements within this region and suggests a possible functional role for the region in viral replication or gene expression. These data also have implications for selection of optimal primer sequences for the detection of HCV RNA by the PCR assay.