The rational design and synthesis of a highly potent inhibitor of HIV-1 protease have been accomplished. The inhibitor, SB 206343, is based on a model derived from the structure of the MVT-101/HIV-1 protease complex and contains a 4(5)-acylimidazole ring as an isosteric replacement for the P1'--P2' amide bond. It is a competitive inhibitor with an apparent inhibition constant of 0.6 nM at pH 6.0. The three-dimensional structure of SB 206343 bound in the active site of HIV-1 protease has been determined at 2.3 A resolution by X-ray diffraction techniques and refined to a crystallographic discrepancy factor, R (= sigma parallel Fo magnitude of/Fc parallel/sigma magnitude of), of 0.194. The inhibitor is held in the enzyme by a set of hydrophobic and polar interactions. N-3 of the imidazole ring participates in a novel hydrogen-bonding interaction with the bound water molecule, demonstrating the effectiveness of the imidazole ring as an isosteric replacement for the P1'--P2' amide bond in hydroxyethylene-based HIV-1 protease inhibitors. Also present are hydrogen-bonding interactions between N-1 of the imidazole ring and the carbonyl of Gly-127 as well as between the imidazole acyl carbonyl oxygen and the amide nitrogen of Asp-129, exemplifying the peptidomimetic nature of the 4(5)-acylimidazole isostere. All of these interactions are in qualitative agreement with those predicted by the model.