Inhibition of human immunodeficiency virus reverse transcriptase is currently considered a useful approach in the prophylaxis and intervention of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and natural products have not been extensively explored as inhibitors of this enzyme. We currently report that the reverse transcriptase assay developed for the detection of the enzyme in virions involving polyadenylic acid.oligodeoxythymidylic acid (poly rA.oligo dT) and radiolabeled thymidine 5'-triphosphate (TTP), can be applied as a simple method for screening the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 reverse transcriptase (HIV-1 RT) inhibitory potential of natural products. As reported herein, 156 pure natural products have been examined in this system. Benzophenanthridine alkaloids such as faragaronine chloride  and nitidine chloride, which are known inhibitors of avian myeloblastosis virus reverse transcriptase, demonstrated potent activity in the HIV-1 RT system, and 1 (IC50 10 micrograms/ml) was adopted as a positive-control substance. Additional inhibitors found were columbamine iodide  and other protoberberine alkaloids, the isoquinoline alkaloid O-methylpsychotrine sulfate , and the iridoid fulvoplumierin . A number of indolizidine, pyrrolizidine, quinolizidine, indole, and other alkaloids, as well as compounds of many other structural classes, were tested and found to be inactive. A total of 100 plant extracts have also been evaluated, and 15 of these extracts showed significant inhibitory activity. Because tannins and other polyphenolic compounds are potent reverse transcriptase inhibitors, methods were evaluated for the removal of these from plant extracts prior to testing. Polyphenolic compounds were found to be responsible for the activity demonstrated by the majority of plant extracts. After appropriate tannin removal procedures were established, the bioassay system was shown to be generally applicable to both pure natural products and plant extracts. The method also proved useful in directing an isolation procedure with Plumeria rubra to yield fulvoplumierin  as an active compound (IC50 45 micrograms/ml).