Several cholic acid derivatives such as taurolithocholic acid, lithocholic acid 3-sulfate, taurolithocholic acid 3-sulfate, and glycolithocholic acid 3-sulfate were shown to inhibit selectively the replication of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) in vitro. These compounds completely protected MT-4 cells against HIV-1-induced cytopathogenicity at a concentration of 100 micrograms/ml, whereas no toxicity for the host cells was observed at 200 micrograms/ml. They also inhibited HIV-1 antigen expression in HIV-1-infected CEM cells. The bile acids (cholic acid, deoxycholic acid, chenodeoxycholic acid, and lithocholic acid) did not show any inhibitory effect on HIV-1 replication at concentrations that were not toxic to the host (MT-4) cells. From a structure-function analysis of a number of cholic acid derivatives, the presence of either a sulfonate (as in the tauro conjugates) or a sulfate group as well as the "litho" configuration appeared to be necessary for the expression of anti-HIV-1 activity. The active cholic acid derivatives did not directly inactivate the virus particles at the concentrations that were not toxic to the host cells. Lithocholic acid 3-sulfate, taurolithocholic acid 3-sulfate, and glycolithocholic acid 3-sulfate, but not taurolithocholic acid, partially inhibited virus adsorption to MT-4 cells. These three compounds were also inhibitory to the reverse transcriptase activity associated with HIV-1.