The level of genetic variation of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), a member of the lentivirus genus of the Retroviridae family, is high relative to that of retroviruses in some other genera. The high error rates of purified HIV-1 reverse transcriptase in cell-free systems suggest an explanation for this high genetic variation. To test whether the in vivo rate of mutation during reverse transcription of HIV-1 is as high as predicted by cell-free studies, and therefore higher than that rates of mutation of retroviruses in other genera, we developed an in vivo assay for detecting forward mutations in HIV-1, using the lacZα peptide gene as a reporter for mutations. This system allows the rates and types of mutations that occur during a single cycle of replication to be studied. We found that the forward mutation rate for HIV-1 was 3.4 x 10-5 mutations per bp per cycle. Base substitution mutations predominated; G-to-A transition mutations were the most common base substitution. The in vivo mutation rates for HIV-1 are three and seven times higher than those previously reported for two other retroviruses, spleen necrosis virus and bovine leukemia virus, respectively. In contrast, our calculated in vivo mutation rate for HIV-1 is about 20-fold lower than the error rate of purified HIV-1 reverse transcriptase, with the same target sequence. This finding indicates that HIV-1 reverse transcription in vivo is not as error prone as predicted from the fidelity of purified reverse transcriptase in cell-free studies. Our data suggest that the fidelity of purified HIV-1 reverse transcriptase may not accurately reflect the level of genetic variation in a natural infection.