Calanolide A, recently discovered in extracts from the tropical rainforest tree, Calophyllum lanigerum, is a novel inhibitor of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) type 1. The compound is essentially inactive against strains of the less common HIV type 2. The present study focused on the further characterization of the selective antiviral activity and mechanism of action of calanolide A. The compound inhibited a wide variety of laboratory strains of HIV type 1, with EC50 values ranging from 0.10 to 0.17 microM. The compound similarly inhibited promonocytotropic and lymphocytotropic isolates from patients in various stages of HIV disease, as well as drug-resistant strains. Viral life-cycle studies indicated that calanolide A acted early in the infection process, similar to the known HIV reverse transcriptase (RT) inhibitor 2', 3'-dideoxycytidine. In enzyme inhibition assays, calanolide A potently and selectively inhibited recombinant HIV type 1 RT but not cellular DNA polymerases or HIV type 2 RT within the concentration range tested. Serial passage of the virus in host cells exposed to increasing concentrations of calanolide A yielded a calanolide A resistant virus strain. RT from the resistant virus was not inhibited by calanolide A but retained sensitivity to other nonnucleoside as well as nucleoside RT inhibitors, including 3'-azido-2',3'-dideoxythymidine triphosphate and nevirapine. The study substantially supports the conclusion that calanolide A represents a novel subclass of nonnucleoside RT inhibitor which merits consideration for anti-HIV drug development.