An insertion sequence (IS901), found in pathogenic strains of Mycobacterium avium, but absent in M. avium complex isolates from patients with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), has been isolated and sequenced. This insertion element has a nucleotide sequence of 1472 bp, with one open reading frame (ORF1), which codes for a protein of 401 amino acids. The amino acid sequence, terminal ends and target site of IS901 are similar to those of IS900, present in Mycobacterium paratuberculosis. However, the DNA sequences of these two IS elements exhibit only 60% homology, compared to a DNA homology of 98% between their respective hosts. IS901, like IS900, appears to belong to a family of related insertion elements present in actinomycetes and other bacteria. M. avium strains containing IS901 were found to be more virulent in mice than closely related strains lacking IS901. IS901 may be a useful tool for the study of the genetics of virulence in the M. avium complex and for obtaining stable integration of foreign genes into mycobacteria.