Infection of microglia and other cells of the macrophage/monocyte lineage in the central nervous system (CNS) by human immunodeficiency virus type I (HIV-1) underlies the development of giant cell encephalitis (GCE). It is currently unknown whether GCE depends on the emergence of virus populations specifically adapted to replicate in cells of the monocyte/macrophage lineage and whether this also leads to the specific targeting of macrophages in other nonlymphoid tissues. Autopsy samples from lymph node, brain (frontal region), lung, and full-thickness colon sections were obtained from nine study subjects with GCE and from nine without. The two groups showed no significant differences in CD4 counts, disease progression, or treatment history before death. Genetic relatedness between variants recovered from lymph node and nonlymphoid tissues was assessed by sequence comparison of V3 and p17(gag) regions using a newly developed method that scores the sample composition at successive nodes in a neighbor-joining tree. The association index enabled objective, numerical comparisons on the degree of tissue compartmentalization to be made. High proviral loads and p24 antigen expression in the brain were confined to the nine individuals with GCE. GCE was also associated with significantly higher proviral loads in colon samples (median of the GCE(+) group: 1,010 copies/10(6) cells; median of GCE(-) group, 10/10(6) cells; P = 0.006). In contrast, there were no significant differences in proviral load between the GCE(+) and GCE(-) groups in lymph node or lung samples, where HIV infection was manifested predominantly by infiltrates of lymphoid cells. V3 sequences from brain samples of individuals with GCE showed the greatest compartmentalization from those of lymph node, although samples from other tissues, particularly the colon, frequently contained variants phylogenetically related to those found in brain. The existence of shared, distinct populations of HIV specifically distributed in cells of the monocyte/macrophage lineage was further indicated by immunocytochemical detection of CD68(+), multinucleated giant cells expressing p24 antigen in samples of lung and colon in two individuals with GCE. This study provides the basis for future investigation of possible phenotypic similarities that underline the shared distributions of HIV variants infecting microglia and tissue macrophages outside the CNS.