A 40-amino-acid sequence located in the nonstructural 5A (NS5A) protein of hepatitis C virus genotype 1b (HCV-1b) was recently suggested to be the interferon sensitivity-determining region (ISDR), because HCV-1b strains with an ISDR amino acid sequence identical to that of the prototype strain HCV-J were found to be resistant to alpha interferon (IFN-α) whereas strains with amino acid substitutions were found to be sensitive (N. Enomoto, I. Sakuma, Y. Asahina, M. Kurosaki, T. Murakami, C. Yamamoto, N. Izumi, F. Marumo, and C. Sato, J. Clin. Invest. 96:224-230, 1995; N. Enomoto, I. Sakuma, Y. Asahina, M. Kurosaki, T. Murakami, C. Yamamoto, Y. Ogura, N. Izumi, F. Marumo, and C. Sato, N. Engl. J. Med. 334:77-81, 1996). We used single- strand conformation polymorphism (SSCP) analysis, combined with cloning and sequencing strategies, to characterize NS5A quasispecies in HCV-1b-infected patients and determine the relationships between pre- and post-treatment NS5A quasispecies mutations and the IFN-α sensitivity of HCV-1b. The serine residues involved in phosphorylation of NS5A protein were highly conserved both in the various patients and in quasispecies in a given patient, suggesting that phosphorylation is important in NS5A protein function. A hot spot for amino acid substitutions was found at positions 2217 to 2218; it could be the result of either strong selection pressure or tolerance to these amino acid replacements. The proportion of synonymous mutations was significantly higher than the proportion of nonsynonymous mutations, suggesting that genetic variability in the region studied was the result of high mutation rates and viral replication kinetics rather than of positive selection. Sustained HCV RNA clearance was associated with low viral load and low nucleotide sequence entropy, suggesting (i) that the replication kinetics when treatment is started plays a critical role in HCV-1b sensitivity to IFN- α and (ii) that HCV-1b resistance to IFN-α could be conferred by numerous and/or related mutations that could be patient specific and located at different positions throughout the viral genome and could allow escape variants to be selected by IFN-α-stimulated immune responses. No NS5A sequence appeared to be intrinsically resistant or sensitive to IFN-α, but the HCV-J sequence was significantly more frequent in nonresponder quasispecies than in sustained virological responder quasispecies, suggesting that the balance between NS5A quasispecies sequences in infected patients could have a subtle regulatory influence on HCV replication.