The pathogenicity of 22 strains of Leishmania infantum from 11 HIV-infected and 11 immunocompetent patients with visceral (VL, n = 16) or cutaneous (CL, n = 6) leishmaniasis, belonging to 3 zymodemes (MON-1, n = 14; MON-29, n = 5; MON-33, n = 3), was studied using a murine model. For each strain 16-20 BALB/c mice were infected at day 0 (d0) by i.v. injection of 10(7) stationary-phase promastigotes. Parasite burdens were quantified in the spleen and liver of 4-5 mice of each strain at d7, d20, d60 and d90 or d100, using a sensitive culture microtitration technique. A great variability of infection profiles between strains was observed: (i) six strains showed a progressive infection, with a predominance of hepatic parasites at d7 or d20 (10(4)-10(6) g-1), then a continuous rise of splenic parasites reaching 10(5)-10(7) g-1 at d90 or d100 contrasting with a stagnation or decrease in the liver; (ii) ten strains gave a controlled infection with hepatic parasite burden reaching 10(4)-10(5) g-1 at d7 or d20, followed by a more or less rapid decline leading frequently to no detectable parasites; (iii) six strains resulted in other profiles, i.e., undetectable infection (n = 1) or low parasite loads (n = 4), or late occurrence of parasites in the spleen (n = 1). No relationship was observed between profile and growth characteristics in vitro or zymodeme of the strain. Strains originating from CL never gave a visceralizing pattern in mice, but belonged more frequently to the avirulent type compared to VL strains. Strains from HIV-infected patients were not less virulent than those from immunocompetent individuals. These results showed that the course of L. infantum infection varies markedly with intrinsic parasite factors that display striking intraspecific variability.