A metallopeptide-based fluorescence assay has been designed for the detection of small-molecule inhibitors of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 gp41, the viral protein involved in membrane fusion. The assay involves two peptides representing the inner N-terminal-heptad-repeat (HR1) coiled coil and the outer C-terminal-heptad-repeat (HR2) helical domains of the gp41 six-helix bundle which forms prior to fusion. The two peptides span a hydrophobic pocket previously defined in the literature. The HR1 peptide is modified with a metal-ligated dye complex, which maintains structural integrity and permits association with a fluorophore-labeled HR2 peptide to be followed by fluorescence quenching. Compounds able to disrupt six-helix bundle formation can act as fusion inhibitors, and we show that they can be detected in the assay from an increase in the fluorescence that is correlated with the potency of the compound. Assay optimization and validation have resulted in a simple quantitative competitive inhibition assay for fusion inhibitors that bind in the hydrophobic pocket. The assay has an assay quality factor (Z') of 0.88 and can rank order inhibitors at 10 microM concentration with K(i)s in the range of 0.2 microM to 30 microM, an ideal range for drug discovery. Screening of a small peptidomimetic library has yielded three new low-molecular-weight gp41 inhibitors. In vitro syncytium inhibition assays confirmed that the compounds inhibited cell-cell fusion in the low micromolar range. These lead compounds provide a new molecular scaffold for the development of fusion inhibitors.