Giardia lamblia undergo surface antigenic variation in vitro and in vivo. The presence of variant trophozoites can be detected in clones after exposure to cytotoxic monoclonal antibodies. Surviving Giardia (progeny) no longer possess the initial major surface antigen which is replaced by new antigens. Exposure of a clone from one progeny to another cytotoxic mAb specific to one newly appearing surface antigen resulted in the loss of this antigen and replacement by another set of antigens. The frequency of change was rapid (1:100-1:1000) and was dependent upon the isolate. The presence of variant populations in clones was confirmed by direct and indirect immunofluorescence using mAbs to major surface antigens of subsequent progeny. The putative amino acid sequence of a portion of one antigen revealed a cysteine-rich composition which was confirmed in this variant protein as well as others by preferential uptake of [35S]cysteine. The mechanism(s) responsible most likely involves genomic rearrangements since Southern blots revealed a family of related genes which changed frequently compared to other areas of the genome. However, expression-linked copies have not been detected. Loss and gain of surface antigens have also been found in gerbils and humans infected with defined clones, but there does not appear to be cyclical appearance of variant populations. The biological importance of antigenic variation is not known but it may contribute to chronic and/or repeated infections.