We have applied the RNase A mismatch cleavage method to analyze genetic variability in RNA viruses by using influenza virus as a model system. Uniformly labeled RNA probes synthesized from a cloned hemagglutinin gene of a given viral strain were hybridized to RNA isolated from other strains of characterized or uncharacterized genetic composition. The RNA.RNA heteroduplexes containing a variable number of base mismatches were digested with RNase A, and the resistant products were analyzed by denaturing polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis. We show that many of these single base mismatches are cleaved by RNase A, generating unique and characteristic patterns of resistant RNA fragments specific for each of the different viral strains. Comparative analysis of the cleavage patterns allows a qualitative estimation of the genetic relatedness and evolution of field strains. We also show that cleavage by RNase A at single base mismatches can readily detect and localize point mutations present in monoclonal antibody-resistant variants. This method should have wide applications in the study of RNA viruses, not only for epidemiological analysis but also in some diagnostic problems, such as characterization of phenotypic mutants.