The viral infectivity factor gene vif of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) has been shown to enhance the cell-free infectivity of HIV-1 virus particles. Previous studies have demonstrated that vif increases viral infectivity at the time of virus production, most likely by affecting viral protein processing, virus assembly, or virus maturation. The effect of vif on the assembly and maturation of HIV-1 propagated in CEM, Jurkat, and SupT1 cells was examined by electron microscopy and goniometer analysis. CEM and Jurkat cells are nonpermissive and partially permissive for the replication of vif--defective viruses, respectively, while SupT1 cells are completely permissive. In CEM and Jurkat cultures, the morphology of immature vif+ and vif- virions was similar but immature virus particles were observed at a slightly higher frequency in cultures infected with the vif- virus. At later stages of virus maturation, however, nonhomogeneous packing of the core was detected in the majority of vif- virus particles produced in CEM and Jurkat cells. In the absence of vif, the cone-shaped virus core contained dense material in its broad end but, in contrast to vif+ virions, the material inside its narrow end appeared transparent. The narrow part of the vif- virus core was surrounded by a shell and was attached to the viral envelope by a core-envelope link structure. Vif- virus particles with a lateral body of core material adjacent to the viral envelope were also observed more frequently in CEM and Jurkat cultures. In contrast, in SupT1 cultures the morphology of mature vif+ and vif- virus particles was similar. These results suggest that vif is associated with an effect during the final stages of packing of the viral nucleoprotein core. This effect may be important for the infectivity of HIV-1 virus particles.