Amino acid variation at reverse transcriptase (RT) codon 210 (generally Leu-210 to Trp [L210W], TTG-->TGG) is occasionally detected after the initiation of azidothymidine (AZT) therapy. The impact of this variation on AZT resistance and viral replication was addressed by four different approaches. The frequency and genetic background of the L210W mutation in vivo were assessed by analyzing sera of AZT-naive and AZT-experienced patients by RT-PCR and DNA sequencing. The degree of AZT resistance (50% infective concentration [IC50]) of recombinant viruses constructed by using the RT of 21 clinical isolates was stratified by the presence or absence of the 210 mutation. The AZT IC50S of a panel of mutant viruses (with or without W-210) constructed by site-directed mutagenesis in an HXB2 background were assayed by using a HeLa CD4 plaque reduction assay. Finally, the effect of the 210 mutation on viral replication was assessed by replication competition of an AZT-resistant virus, RTMN (L-41/Y-215), and RTMN with the W-210 mutation in the presence and in the absence of AZT. In AZT-naive patients, tryptophan at RT residue 210 was rare. After AZT exposure, W-210 appeared in a minority of those patients, most commonly in association with L-41 and Y-215. The presence of W-210 increased the AZTIC50 by two- to fourfold, as determined by both the recombinant virus assay and site-directed mutagenesis. A significant replication advantage in favor of the wild-type L-210 over W-210 was observed, although the selection against the 210 mutant was two- to threefold lower when the viruses were grown in the presence of 5 microM AZT. In summary, the L210W mutation appears to be of marginal significance, conferring approximately two- to fourfold-reduced sensitivity to AZT compared with similar AZT-resistant genomes with L-210. The selection pressure against W-210 may account for the modest proportion of patients in which W-210 appears in vivo.