OBJECTIVE: To investigate whether members of a transfusion-linked cohort (the Sydney Bloodbank Cohort) infected with a nef-deleted strain of HIV-1 could be differentiated from individuals infected with wild-type strains of HIV-1 by characterizing the Nef antibody response of cohort members. DESIGN: Retrospective and prospective analysis of the nef gene sequence and the antibody response to Nef peptides in HIV-infected subjects. METHODS: Plasma was obtained from all individuals of the Sydney cohort, and from a variety of HIV-1-infected and uninfected controls. Antibodies recognizing full-length recombinant HIV-1NL43 Nef protein and synthetic peptide analogues were assessed by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. RESULTS: All 34 individuals infected with wild-type HIV-1 had antibodies reacting with full-length Nef protein as well as with a series of synthetic peptides (6-23-mers) spanning most of the Nef protein of HIV-1NL43. Although the HIV-1 quasispecies infecting the Sydney cohort had a consensus deletion of the nef gene corresponding to amino-acids 165-206, HIV-1 strains from individual members of the cohort had additional deletions comprising up to 80% of the nef gene. Members of the cohort had antibodies to peptides homologous to all regions of the Nef protein tested, except for a single peptide (amino-acids 162-177) that lies within the consensus nef deletion for the cohort quasispecies. CONCLUSION: These data show that nef-deleted strains of HIV-1 can be detected serologically. In the Sydney cohort, detection of antibodies to all regions of Nef tested, except that corresponding to amino-acids 162-177, suggests that observed deletions outside this domain occurred after this virus had infected these subjects and stimulated an immune response. A Nef peptide serological assay may be useful for identifying further examples of individuals infected with nef-deleted, attenuated HIV-1 quasispecies and for assessing the evolution of those variants in vivo.