The genetic mechanisms of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) resistance to dideoxyinosine (ddI) in vivo have been described based on data from primary HIV-1 isolates. To better define the spectrum of HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (RT) changes occurring during ddI therapy, we determined the genotype and ddI susceptibility of the RT gene of HIV RNA isolated from the plasma of 23 patients who had received 1 to 2 years (mean, 87 +/- 16 weeks) of ddI monotherapy. Population-based sequencing of plasma virus showed that 12 of 23 (52%) patients developed known ddI resistance mutations: L74V (7 patients), K65R (2 patients), L74V with M184V (3 patients), and L74V with K65R (1 patient). Five patients developed one or more known zidovudine resistance mutations (at codons 41, 67, 70, 215, and/or 219) during the study. Other amino acid substitutions were found, but only S68G and L210W occurred in more than one patient. Studies of sensitivity to ddI were performed on population-based recombinant-virus stocks generated by homologous recombination between a plasmid containing an HXB2 clone with the RT gene deleted and RT-PCR products of the RT genes from patients' plasma RNA. The sequences of the virus stocks produced by this procedure were typically identical to the sequence of the input PCR product from plasma RNA. Both an MT-2 cell-based culture assay and a cell-free virion-associated RT inhibition assay showed that viruses possessing an L74V and/or M184V mutation or a K65R mutation had reduced sensitivity to ddI. Viruses without these specific mutations had no change in sensitivity to ddI. The results presented here show that the spectrum of RT mutations in a population of patients on ddI monotherapy is more complex than previously described. The development of multiple mutational patterns, including those that confer resistance to other nucleoside analogs, highlights the complexity of using the currently available nucleoside analogs for antiretroviral therapy.