In central equatorial Africa the frequency of uninterpretable or atypical Western blots (WB) — ie. antibodies to gag proteins only — can represent up to 50% of enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA)-positive samples. To date the significance of such serology remains unknown. Nevertheless, an unusual HIV-1 strain has been isolated from the blood of a healthy Gabonese individual who presented an atypical WB. This virus, identified as isolated HIV-1OY1, grew to low titres of reverse transcriptase activity (<50000 cpm/ml) and was not obviously cytopathic. Radioimmunoprecipitation and peptide ELISA studies indicated that the lack of env-specific reactivity was probably due to the absence of antibodies to the viral glycoproteins, rather than the virus encoding a highly divergent envelope protein. Molecular cloning and sequencing of the provirus proved it to be a string of HIV-1 which was genetically closer to European and North American than to African strains. Furthermore the envelope protein sequence contained all the features of a typical HIV-1 env gene. However, the tat gene derived from the proviral clone was functionally defective. Site-directed mutagenesis of this gene showed that this was due to the substitution of an essential cysteine residue for a serine. Polymerase chain reaction amplification of the tat gene, as well as parts of the gag and env gene sequences of HIV-10Y|, showed that essentially all of the proviruses were defective. These data emphasize the need to view HIV isolates as populations of distinct genomes capable of complementing each other.