The expression of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) after T cell activation is regulated by NF-κB, an inducible DNA-binding protein that stimulates transcription. Proteins encoded by a variety of DNA viruses are also able to activate expression from the HIV enhancer. To determine how this activation occurs, specific genes from herpes simplex virus type 1 and adenovirus that activate HIV in T lymphoma cells have been identified. The cis-acting regulatory sequences in the HIV enhancer that mediate their effect have also been characterized. The relevant genes are those for ICP0 - an immediate-early product of herpes simplex virus type 1 - and the form of E1A encoded by the 13S messenger RNA of adenovirus. Activation of HIV by adenovirus E1A was found to depend on the TATA box, whereas herpesvirus ICP0 did not work through a single defined cis-acting element. These findings suggest multiple pathways that can be used to bypass normal cellular activation of HIV, and they raise the possibility that infection by herpes simplex virus or adenovirus may directly contribute to the activation of HIV in acquired immunodeficiency syndrome by mechanisms independent of antigenic stimulation in T cells.