The extensive genetic diversity of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) presents a significant barrier to the development of an effective and durable HIV vaccine. This variability not only makes it difficult to identify the targets against which immune responses should be directed, but it also confers on the virus the capacity for rapid escape from effective immune responses. Here, we describe recent investigations of the genetic diversity of HIV-1 at transmission and of the evolution of the virus as it adapts to the host immune environment during the acute phase of HIV-1 infection. These studies increase our understanding of the virology of the earliest stages of HIV-1 infection and provide critical insights into the mechanisms underlying viral replication and immune control of diverse HIV-1 strains. Such knowledge will inform the design of smarter, more effective vaccines capable of inducing immune control of HIV-1.