Envelope oligomerization is thought to serve several crucial functions during the life cycle of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1). We recently reported that virus entry requires coiled-coil formation of the leucine zipper-like domain of the HIV-1 transmembrane envelope glycoprotein gp41 (C. Wild, T. Oas, C. McDanal, D. Bolognesi, and T. Matthews, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 89:10537-10541, 1992; C. Wild, J. W. Dubay, T. Greenwell, T. Baird, Jr., T. G. Oas, C. McDanal, E. Hunter, and T. Matthews, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 91:12676-12680, 1994). To determine the oligomeric state mediated by this region of the envelope, we have expressed the zipper motif as a fusion partner with the monomeric maltose-binding protein of Escherichia coli. The biophysical properties of this protein were characterized by velocity and equilibrium sedimentation, size exclusion chromatography, light scattering, and chemical cross-linking analyses. Results indicate that the leucine zipper sequence from HIV-1 is capable of multimerizing much larger and otherwise monomeric proteins into extremely stable tetramers. Recombinant proteins containing an alanine or a serine substitution at a critical isoleucine residue within the zipper region were also generated and similarly analyzed. The alanine- and serine-substituted proteins behaved as tetrameric and monomeric species, respectively, consistent with the influence of these same substitutions on the helical coiled-coil structure of synthetic peptide models. On the basis of these findings, we propose that the fusogenic gp4l structure involves tetramerization of the leucine zipper domain which is situated approximately 30 residues from the N-terminal fusion peptide sequence.