Organisms of the Mycobacterium avium complex are common pathogens in immunosuppressed patients such as individuals with AIDS. There is evidence that in AIDS patients, the main route for M. avium infection is the gastrointestinal tract. The stomach is a formidable barrier to pathogens and the ability to resist exposure to pH lower than 3 has been shown to be a virulence determinant of enteric pathogens. Incubation of three clinical isolates of M. avium under acidic pH revealed resistance of M. avium grown both to the exponential and stationary phase at pH 2.2 for 2 h. Inhibition of protein synthesis had no effect on the acid tolerance. When the duration of the incubation at pH 2.2 was extended to 24 h, bacteria grown to the stationary phase had a significantly greater tolerance to acid than exponential phase bacteria. M. avium incubated with acid in the presence of water was significantly more resistant to pH 2.2 than M. avium in the presence of buffer. Pre-adaptation in water prior to exposure to acidic conditions was also associated with increased resistance to pH 2.2. Isoosmolarity of Hank's balanced salt solution appears to be responsible for the impaired resistance to acid between 2 and 24 h of incubation. These findings indicate that M. avium is naturally tolerant to pH<3 and that pre-adaptation under conditions similar to the conditions where M. avium is found in the environment results in increased acid resistance.