The unusually high mutation frequency exhibited by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a major impediment to developing effective vaccines against the virus and to designing analogs that inhibit viral replication. To investigate the molecular basis of HIV hypermutability, we established cell-free assays to measure the fidelity of HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (RT) in copying either DNA or both RNA and DNA templates that contain the hypervariable region 1 of the HIV-1 env gene (V-1). The fidelity of DNA synthesis was measured by repetitively copying the envelope gene (V-1) DNA by HIV-1 RT, followed by cloning and sequencing these newly synthesized DNA products. We found that the error rate of HIV RT copying either RNA or DNA of the env V-1 region is about one misincorporation per 5 kb polymerized. This rate is similar to that found with the M13mp2 forward mutation assay using the lacZ alpha gene as a template. This similarity suggests that the HIV env hypervariable sequence is not inherently hypermutable. The high error rate of HIV RT suggests that misincorporation by this enzyme is a major source of mutations throughout the viral genome and a determinant for rapid viral evolution. The spectrum of mutations produced by HIV RT in vitro partially correlates with the spectrum of HIV mutations observed in AIDS patients. The differences between these spectra highlight the contribution of phenotypic selection during HIV-1 infection. The overall uniformity of misincorporation of HIV-1 RT further suggests an alternative anti-HIV strategy based on increasing viral mutagenesis by nucleotide analogs.