More than 80% of the world's HIV-infected adults live in sub-Saharan Africa, where heterosexual transmission is the predominant mode of spread. The virologic and immunologic correlates of female-to-male (FTM) and male-to-female (MTF) transmission are not well understood. A total of 1022 heterosexual couples with discordant HIV-1 serology results (one partner HIV infected, the other HIV uninfected) were enrolled in a prospective study in Lusaka, Zambia and monitored at 3-month intervals. A nested case-control design was used to compare 109 transmitters and 208 nontransmitting controls with respect to plasma HIV-1 RNA (viral load, VL), virus isolation, and CD4(+) cell levels. Median plasma VL was significantly higher in transmitters than nontransmitters (123,507 vs. 51,310 copies/ml, p < 0.001). In stratified multivariate Cox regression analyses, the risk ratio (RR) for FTM transmission was 7.6 (95% CI: 2.3, 25.5) for VL > or = 100,000 copies/ml and 4.1 (95% CI: 1.2, 14.1) for VL between 10,000 and 100,000 copies/ml compared with the reference group of <10,000 copies/ml. Corresponding RRs for MTF transmission were 2.1 and 1.2, respectively, with 95% CI both bounding 1. Only 3 of 41 (7%) female transmitters had VL < 10,000 copies/ml compared with 32 of 93 (34%) of female nontransmitters (p < 0.001). The transmission rate within couples was 7.7/100 person-years and did not differ from FTM (61/862 person-years) and MTF (81/978 person-years) transmission. We conclude that the association between increasing plasma viral load was strong for female to male transmission, but was only weakly predictive of male to female transmission in Zambian heterosexual couples. FTM and MTF transmission rates were similar. These data suggest gender-specific differences in the biology of heterosexual transmission.