Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) has high replication and mutation rates that generate large census populations and high levels of genetic variation. We examined the roles of natural selection, population growth, random genetic drift, and recombination in shaping the variation in 1509 C2-V5 env sequences derived from nine men with chronic HIV-1 infection. These sequences were obtained from clinical visits that reflect the first 6-13.7 years of infection. Pairwise comparisons of nonsynonymous and synonymous distances, Tajima's D test, Fu and Li's D* test, and a test of recurrent mutation revealed evidence for episodes of nonneutral evolution in a total of 22 out of 145 blood samples, representing six of the nine individuals. Using three coalescent-based maximum-likelihood estimators, we found viral effective population sizes in all nine individuals to be approximately 10(3). We also show that a previous estimate of the effective population size of approximately 10(5) based on rare haplotype frequencies decreases to approximately 10(3) upon correcting a biased sampling procedure. We conclude that the genetic variation in these data sets can be explained by a predominance of random genetic drift of neutral mutations with brief episodes of natural selection that were frequently masked by recombination.