We have studied the molecular basis for the resistance of human CEM leukemia cells to GW1843, a thymidylate synthase inhibitor. GW1843-resistant cells displayed a approximately 100-fold resistance to GW1843 and methotrexate but were collaterally sensitive to the lipophilic antifolates trimetrexate and AG337, which enter cells by diffusion. These cells exhibited a 12-fold decreased methotrexate influx but surprisingly had a 2-fold decreased folic acid growth requirement. This was associated with a 4-fold increased influx of folic acid, a 3.5-fold increased steady-state level of folic acid, and a 2.3-fold expansion of the cellular folate pool. Characterization of the transport kinetic properties revealed that GW1843-resistant cells had the following alterations: (a) 11-fold decreased transport K(m) for folic acid; (b) 6-fold increased transport K(m) for GW1843; and (c) a slightly increased transport V(max) for folic acid. Sequence analysis showed that GW1843-resistant cells contained the mutations Val-29 --> Leu, Glu-45 --> Lys, and Ser-46 --> Ile in the first transmembrane domain of the reduced folate carrier. Transfection of the mutant-reduced folate carrier cDNA into methotrexate transport null cells conferred resistance to GW1843. This is the first demonstration of multiple mutations in a confined region of the human reduced folate carrier in an antifolate-resistant mutant. We conclude that certain amino acid residues in the first transmembrane domain play a key role in (anti)folate binding and in the conferring of drug resistance.