We have examined genetic variation of the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) in four macaques inoculated with virions derived from molecular clones of proviral DNA. Our data demonstrated that the SIV genome is capable of rapid and extensive genetic variation. This variation was especially large in the env gene, where nucleotide substitution frequencies were as high as 10(-1)/site/year. In some env clones, a high G to A transition rate was observed that accounted for up to 79% of the observed nucleotide substitutions. Moreover, in env clones with a high G to A transition rate, multiple in-frame stop codons were generated exclusively at tryptophan codons. Another interesting observation was the lack of variation in the region analogous to the V3 loop in the HIV-1 Env protein. Considered together, these data have important implications for studies of pathogenesis and vaccine development in the SIV model system.