A number of antibodies generated during human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection have been cloned by the phage library approach. Antibodies reactive with an immunodominant epitope on the F glycoprotein of this virus have a high affinity for affinity-purified F antigen. These antibodies, however, have a much lower affinity for mature F glycoprotein on the surface of infected cells and are nonneutralizing. In contrast, a potent neutralizing antibody has a high affinity for mature F protein but a much lower affinity for purified F protein or F protein in viral lysates. The data indicate that at least two F protein immunogens are produced during natural RSV infection: immature F, found in viral lysates, and mature F, found on infected cells or virions. Binding studies with polyclonal human immunoglobulin G suggest that the antibody responses to the two immunogens are of similar magnitudes. Competitive binding studies suggest that overlap between the responses is relatively limited. A mature envelope with an antigenic configuration different from that of the immature envelope has an evolutionary advantage in that the infecting virus is less subject to neutralization by the humoral response to the immature envelope that inevitably arises following lysis of infected cells. Subunit vaccines may be at a disadvantage because they most often resemble immature envelope molecules and ignore this aspect of viral evasion.