Sequencing of the reverse transcriptase (RT) region of 26 human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) isolates from eight patients treated with 3'-azido-3'-deoxythymidine (AZT) revealed a mutation at codon 210 from TTG (leucine) to TGG (tryptophan) exclusively in association with resistance to AZT. The mutation Trp-210 was observed in 15 of the 20 isolates phenotypically resistant to AZT, being more commonly observed than resistance-associated mutations at codons 67, 70, and 219. Trp-210 was never observed before the emergence of resistance-associated mutations Leu-41 and Tyr-215, and in a sequential series of five isolates from one patient the order of emergence of mutations was found to be Tyr-215, Leu-41, and then Trp-210. Trp-210 was also found in association with the Leu-41, Asn-67, Arg-70, and Tyr-215 resistance genotype. To define the role of Trp-210 in AZT resistance, molecular HIV-1 clones were constructed with various combinations of RT mutations at codons 41, 67, 70, 210, and 215 and tested for susceptibility to AZT. In clones with polymerase genes derived either from HXB2-D or clinical isolates, Trp-210 alone did not increase AZT resistance, whereas in conjunction with Leu-41 and Tyr-215, Trp-210 contributed to high-level resistance (50% inhibitory concentration of >1 microM). In HXB2-D, Trp-210 with Tyr-215 generated a virus with resistance comparable to one with Leu-41, Tyr-215, and Trp-210. Inserting Trp-210 into the genetic context of mutations at codons 41, 67, 70, and 215 further enhanced resistance from a 50% inhibitory concentration of 1.44 microM to 8.41 microM. Molecular modeling of the tertiary structure of HIV-1 RT revealed that the distance between the side chains of Trp-210 (in helix alphaF) and Tyr-215 (in strand beta11a) approximated 4 A (1 A = 0.1 nm), sufficiently close to result in significant energetic interaction between these two aromatic side chains. In conclusion, Trp-210 contributes significantly to phenotypic AZT resistance of HIV-1 by augmenting resistance at least three- to sixfold in the context of two resistant genotypes, and its effect may require an interaction with an aromatic amino acid at position 215.