The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1) transmembrane envelope glycoprotein, gp41, which mediates virus-cell fusion, exists in at least three different conformations within the trimeric envelope glycoprotein complex. The structures of the prefusogenic and intermediate states are unknown; structures representing the postfusion state have been solved. In the postfusion conformation, three helical heptad repeat 2 (HR2) regions pack in an antiparallel fashion into the hydrophobic grooves on the surface of a triple-helical coiled coil formed by the heptad repeat 1 (HR1) regions. We studied the prefusogenic conformation of gp41 by mutagenic alteration of membrane-anchored and soluble forms of the HIV-1 envelope glycoproteins. Our results indicate that, in the HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein precursor, the gp41 HR1 region is in a conformation distinct from that of a trimeric coiled coil. Thus, the central gp41 coiled coil is formed during the transition of the HIV-1 envelope glycoproteins from the precursor state to the receptor-bound intermediate.