We have compared the nucleotide sequence of an envelope protein gene fragment encoding amino acids 291 to 406 of 22 yellow fever (YF) virus strains of diverse geographic and host origins isolated over a 63 year time span. The nucleotide fragment of viral RNA was examined by direct sequencing of a PCR product derived from complementary DNA. Alignment with the prototype Asibi strain sequence showed divergence of 0 to 21.5% corresponding to a maximum of 5.2% divergence in the amino acid sequence. Taking 10% nucleotide divergence as a cut-off point, the 22 YF virus strains fell into three topotypes which corresponded to different geographical areas, namely West Africa, Central-East Africa, and South America. Two subgroups were defined in West Africa, a genotypic group circulating in the sylvatic zone of the western part of Africa, from western Ivory Coast-Mali to Senegal, and a group responsible for large outbreaks from eastern Ivory Coast-Burkina Faso to Cameroon. Strains from Central-East Africa showed a low ratio of transition:transversion of about 1 instead of 8 to 10 for other strains, when their nucleotide sequences were compared with those of other African strains. This may reflect a more distant relationship between the former strains and the others. No change was observed in the highly conserved amino acid domain encompassing the TGD sequence, an important determinant of flavivirus tropism and pathogenesis. Our results support earlier observations on the genetic relationships between YF isolates established by T1 oligonucleotide fingerprinting and offer a useful tool for the understanding of YF virus distribution and evolution.