Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1)-infected CEM cells were treated by the HIV-1-specific inhibitors bis-heteroarylpiperazine (BHAP), 4,5,6,7-tetrahydro-5-methylimidazo[4,5,1-jk][1,4]benzodiazepin-2(1 H)-on e (TIBO) R82913, nevirapine, and the N3-methylthymine derivative of [2',5'-bis-O-(tert-butyldimethylsilyl)-beta-D-ribofuranosyl]-3'-spiro- 5''-(4''-amino-1'',2''-oxathiole-2'',2''-dioxide) (TSAO-m3T), as single agents or in combination, at escalating concentrations. When used individually, the compounds led to the emergence of drug-resistant virus strains within two to five subcultivations. The resulting strains were designated HIV-1/BHAP, HIV-1/TIBO, HIV-1/Nev, and HIV-1/TSAO-m3T, respectively. The mutant viruses showed the following amino acid substitutions in their reverse transcriptase (RT): Leu-100-->Ile for HIV-1/BHAP; Lys-103-->Asn for HIV-1/TIBO; Val-106-->Ala for HIV-1/Nev; and Glu-138-->Lys for HIV-1/TSAO-m3T. Both the Tyr-181-->Cys and Val-106-->Ala mutations were found in another mutant emerging following treatment with nevirapine at escalating concentrations. The BHAP-resistant virus remained fully sensitive to the inhibitory effects of nevirapine and TSAO-m3T, whereas the TSAO-m3T-resistant virus remained fully sensitive to the inhibitory effects of nevirapine and BHAP. When different pairs of nonnucleoside RT inhibitors (i.e., BHAP plus TSAO-m3T, nevirapine plus TSAO-m3T, TIBO plus TSAO-m3T, nevirapine plus TIBO, and BHAP plus nevirapine) were used, resistant virus emerged as fast as with single-drug therapy. In all cases the Tyr-181-->Cys mutation appeared; the virus showed markedly reduced sensitivity to all HIV-1-specific inhibitors but retained sensitivity to 2',3'-dideoxynucleoside analogs such as zidovudine, ddC, and ddI. Our findings argue against simultaneous combination of two different nonnucleoside RT inhibitors that are unable to inhibit HIV-1 mutant strains containing the Tyr-181-->Cys mutation when administered as single drugs.