A study was conducted to compare our standard culture with a new microculture procedure for isolation of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) from blood leukocytes. A total of 137 blood specimens from 102 HIV-1 antibody-positive individuals (52 were asymptomatic, 31 were symptomatic, and 19 had AIDS) were cultured in a microculture system in which 106 of the patients' peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) were cocultured with 106 phytohemagglutinin (PHA)-stimulated PBMC from an HIV-1 antibody-negative blood donor in 1.2 ml of culture medium. Results were compared with those of a historical control group of 139 standard HIV-1 cultures from 108 HIV-1 antibody-positive subjects (58 were asymptomatic, 36 were symptomatic, and 14 had AIDS). For standard cultures, 10 x 106 of the patients' PBMC were cocultured with 5 x 106 PHA-stimulated PBMC from an HIV-1 antibody-negative blood donor in 15 ml of culture medium. HIV-1 was isolated in 128 (93%) microcultures and 133 (96%) standard cultures. Both methods identified more than 75% of the positive cultures within 7 days and 100% of the positive cultures within 14 days. The isolation rates for HIV-1 in microcultures compared with standard cultures were 91 versus 93% (specimens from asymptomatic individuals), 93 versus 96% (specimens from symptomatic individuals), and 97 versus 100% (specimens from patients with AIDS). The median time to positivity for both culture methods was 7 days, and this correlated significantly with symptoms and CD4+ cell counts. The microculture method is a sensitive and less expensive system for isolation of HIV-1 from PBMC of HIV-1 antibody-positive individuals, and we recommend it as the culture method of choice, especially for children and patients with AIDS and severe anemia or leukopenia whose blood volume is an important consideration.