Deletions of the major variable regions (V1/V2, V3, and V4) of the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) gp120 exterior envelope glycoprotein were created to study the role of these regions in function and antigenicity. Deletion of the V4 region disrupted processing of the envelope glycoprotein precursor. In contrast, the deletion of the V1/V2 and/or V3 regions yielded processed exterior envelope glycoproteins that retained the ability to interact with the gp41 transmembrane glycoprotein and the CD4 receptor. Shedding of the gp120 exterior glycoprotein by soluble CD4 was observed for the mutant with the V3 deletion but did not occur for the V1/V2-deleted mutant. None of the deletion mutants formed syncytia or supported virus entry. Importantly, the affinity of neutralizing antibodies directed against the CD4-binding region for the multimeric envelope glycoprotein complex was increased dramatically by the removal of both the V1/V2 and V3 structures. These results indicate that, in addition to playing essential roles in the induction of membrane fusion, the major variable regions mask conserved neutralization epitopes of the HIV-1 gp120 glycoprotein from antibodies. These results explain the temporal pattern associated with generation of HIV-1-neutralizing antibodies following infection and suggest stratagems for eliciting improved immune responses to conserved gp120 epitopes.