Specific mutations in the UL97 region of human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) have been found to confer resistance to laboratory-adapted strains subjected to ganciclovir selection. In this study, mutations in the UL97 region of HCMV isolates obtained from patients receiving ganciclovir therapy were examined to determine whether they would confer ganciclovir resistance, and if these mutations could be detected directly in the plasma of AIDS patients with progressive HCMV disease despite ganciclovir treatment. A single nucleotide change within a conserved region of UL97 was found in five resistant isolates, resulting in an amino acid substitution in residue 595: from leucine to phenylalanine in one, and from leucine to serine in four resistant isolates. A sixth resistant isolate demonstrated a single nucleotide change, leading to a threonine to isoleucine substitution in residue 659. The role of the 595 amino acid substitution in conferring ganciclovir resistance was confirmed by marker transfer experiments. In further studies, direct sequencing of HCMV DNA present in plasma obtained from persons with resistant viruses revealed the identical amino acid substitutions in plasma as those present in the cultured viruses. These findings indicate that clinical resistance to ganciclovir can result from specific point mutations in the UL97 gene, and that the emergence of the resistant genotype can be detected directly in patient plasma.