The human immunodeficiency virus-1 (HIV-1) envelope glycoprotein is composed of a soluble glycopolypeptide gp120 and a transmembrane glycopolypeptide gp41. These subunits form non-covalently linked oligomers on the surface of infected cells, virions and cells transfected with the complete env gene. Two length variants of the extracellular domain of gp41 (aa 21-166 and aa 39-166), that both lack the N-terminal fusion peptide and the C-terminal membrane anchor and cytoplasmic domain, have been expressed in insect cells to yield soluble oligomeric gp41 proteins. Oligomerization was confirmed by chemical cross-linking and gel filtration. Electron microscopy and circular dichroism measurements indicate a rod-like molecule with a high alpha-helical content and a high melting temperature (78 degrees C). The binding of monoclonal antibody Fab fragments dramatically increased the solubility of both gp41 constructs. We propose that gp41 folds into its membrane fusion-active conformation, when expressed alone.