Isoniazid (INH), which acts by inhibiting mycolic acid biosynthesis, is very potent against the tuberculous mycobacteria. It is about 100-fold less effective against Mycobacterium avium. This difference has often been attributed to a decreased permeability of the cell wall. We measured the rate of conversion of radiolabelled INH to 4-pyridylmethanol by whole cells and cell-free extracts and estimated the permeability barrier imposed by the cell wall to INH influx in Mycobacterium tuberculosis and M. avium. There was no significant difference in the relative permeability to INH between these two species. However, the total conversion rate in M. tuberculosis was found to be four times greater. Examination of in vitro-generated mutants revealed that the major resistance mechanism for both species is loss of the catalase-peroxidase KatG. Analysis of lipid and protein biosynthetic profiles demonstrated that the molecular target of activated INH was identical for both species. M. avium, however, formed colonies at INH concentrations inhibitory for mycolic acid biosynthesis. These mycolate-deficient M. avium exhibited altered colony morphologies, modified cell wall ultrastructure and were 10-fold more sensitive to treatment with hydrophobic antibiotics, such as rifampin. These findings may significantly impact the design of new therapeutic regimens for the treatment of infections with atypical mycobacteria.