The virulence of 24 strains of Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) isolated from patients with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) was assessed using the beige mouse model. Most changes in colony forming unit (cfu) counts in spleen and lungs, and spleen weights occurred between days 1 and 14, with comparatively smaller changes 14-28 days postinfection. The virulence was assessed by a score formulated from the four most useful parameters: mortality, spleen cfu, lung cfu and spleen weights at 28 days. The scores of the 24 strains showed a normal distribution; four strains falling above one standard deviation from the mean were classified as high virulent, those four falling below one standard deviation as low virulent, and the remaining 16 as of intermediate virulence. Virulence was associated with the total number of plasmids and the occurrence of large plasmids (greater than 100 MDa) in the MAC strains. There was an inverse correlation between virulence and the organism's capacity to trigger the release of oxygen metabolites from peritoneal macrophages. Macrophages from mice infected with the MAC strains of different degrees of virulence released superoxide anion (O2-) with a peak at two weeks, the peak levels bearing an inverse correlation to virulence. No association was seen between virulence and source of specimens, biochemical characteristics, drug susceptibility, serotypes or phage types.