Monocytes were maintained in tissue culture for greater than 3 mo in media supplemented with rCSF-1. These cultures provided susceptible target cells for isolation and propagation of virus from PBMC of HIV-infected patients. HIV isolated into monocytes readily infected other rCSF-1-treated monocytes but only inefficiently infected PHA-stimulated lymphoblasts. Similarly, laboratory HIV strains passaged in T cell lines or virus isolated from patients' leukocytes into PHA-stimulated lymphoblasts inefficiently infected rCSF-1-treated monocytes. Persistent, low-level virion production was detected in macrophage culture fluids by reverse transcriptase activity or HIV antigen capture through 6-7 wk. Marked changes in cell morphology with cell death, syncytia, and giant cell formation were observed in monocyte cultures 2 wk after infection, but at 4-6 wk, all cells appeared morphologically normal. However, the frequency of infected cells in these cultures at 6 wk was 60-90% as quantified by in situ hybridization with HIV RNA probes or by immunofluorescence with AIDS patients' sera. Ultrastructural analysis by EM also showed a high frequency of infected cells; virtually all HIV budded into and accumulated within cytoplasmic vacuoles and virus particles were only infrequently associated with the plasma membrane. Retention of virus within macrophages and the macrophage tropism of HIV variants may explain mechanisms of both virus persistence and dissemination during disease.