The orientation in cellular membranes of the 856 amino acid envelope glycoprotein precursor, gp160, of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 was investigated in vitro. Variants of the env gene were transcribed using the bacteriophage SP6 promoter, translated using a rabbit reticulocyte lysate, and translocated into canine pancreatic microsomal membranes. Immunoprecipitation studies of gp160 variants using antibodies specific for various gp160-derived polypeptides provided evidence that the external (cell surface) domain of gp160 begins at the mature amino terminus of the protein and continues through amino acid 665. A stop-transfer sequence (transmembrane domain) was identified in a hydrophobic region COOH-terminal to amino acid 665 and NH2-terminal to amino acid 732. Protease protection experiments demonstrated that gp160 possesses a single cytoplasmic domain COOH-terminal to residue 707. Membrane extraction studies using carbonate buffer provided evidence that the 29 amino acid hydrophobic domain (residues 512-541) of gp160 was unable to serve as a stop-transfer sequence. Finally, we propose that the cytoplasmic tail of gp160 forms a secondary association with the microsomal membranes.