Considerable controversy and uncertainty have surrounded the biological function of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)-1 nef gene product. Initial studies suggested that this early, nonstructural viral protein functioned as a negative regulatory factor; thus, it was proposed to play a role in establishing or maintaining viral latency. In contrast, studies in Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV)mac-infected rhesus monkeys have suggested that Nef is not a negative factor but rather plays a central role in promoting high-level viral replication and is required for viral pathogenesis in vivo. We sought to define a tissue culture system that would approximate the in vivo setting for virus infection in order to assess the role of HIV-1 Nef in viral replication. We show that infection of mitogen-activated peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) with Nef+ HIV results in enhanced replication as evidenced by earlier gag p24 expression when compared with infections performed with nef mutant viruses. Moreover, when unstimulated freshly isolated PBMC are infected with Nef+ and Nef- viruses and then subsequently activated with mitogen, the Nef-induced difference in viral replication kinetics is even more pronounced, with the Nef- viruses requiring much more time in culture for appreciable growth. A positive effect of Nef on viral replication was also observed in primary macrophages infected with a recombinant of YU-2, a patient-derived molecular clone with macrophage tropism. These positive effects of Nef on viral replication are dependent on the initial multiplicity of infection (MOI), in that infections of unstimulated PBMC at low MOI are most dependent upon intact nef for subsequent viral growth. We now provide evidence that the Nef+ HIV is more infectious than Nef- HIV from both a tissue culture infectious dose analysis, and a single-cell HIV infection assay. In the latter case, we demonstrate that infection with equivalent doses of HIV based on virion-associated gag p24 yields five- to sixfold more infected cells if Nef+ viral stocks were used. Furthermore, we find that the differential infectivity is not dependent on CD4 down-regulation as Nef+ virus produced from transfected COS cells lacking CD4 is also more infectious. However, normalization of PBMC infections to equivalent infectivity between that of the Nef+ and Nef- viruses continues to reveal delayed viral replication in the absence of Nef, suggesting that secondary viral spread in PBMC is also enhanced in Nef+ infections. We demonstrate this directly by showing a 13-15-fold increase in infectivity of PBMC-derived Nef+ HIC.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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