Determination of the three-dimensional structure of the human immunodeficiency virus type-1 (HIV-1) reverse transcriptase (RT) has indicated a totally different folding for the 51-kDa subunit (p51) than for the 66-kDa subunit (p66). The polymerase catalytic site is located on the p66 subunit. Moreover, the HIV-1-specific RT inhibitors, also designated as the non-nucleoside RT inhibitors (NNRTIs), select for amino acid mutations that afford resistance to these compounds and are clustered in the palm domain of the HIV-1 RT p66 subunit. This pocket is located in the vicinity of, but clearly distinct from, the polymerase active site. However, for the NNRTIs that belong to the class of the [2',5'-bis-O-(tert-butyldimethylsilyl)-3'-spiro-5''-(4''-amino-1'',2''- oxathiole- 2'',2''-dioxide)] (TSAO) derivatives, the resistance mutation is located at position Glu138. On the p66 subunit, this amino acid is distant from the binding site of the HIV-1-specific RT inhibitors. When the TSAO-specific resistance mutation Glu138-->Lys was introduced solely in the p51 subunit of the RT p66/p51 heterodimer, the enzyme proved completely resistant to TSAO-m3T but retained full sensitivity to TIBO R82150 and ddGTP. On the other hand, when the mutation was introduced only in the p66 subunit the enzyme remained equally sensitive to the inhibitory effects of TSAO-m3T, TIBO R82150, and ddGTP. Our data provide compelling evidence for a structural and functional role of the p51 subunit in the sensitivity and/or resistance of the enzyme to the NNRTIs.