Expression of a gene encoding the diphtheria toxin A (DT-A) fragment, controlled by tissue specific regulatory elements, has previously been used to kill selected cell populations. Here, we have examined the feasibility of controlling DT-A expression using regulatory systems from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1) genome. Plasmids were constructed which express either DT-A or, as a model system, the luciferase (luc) reporter gene, under control of HIV-1 long terminal repeat (LTR) sequences (-167 to +80). While trans-activation by expression of the viral protein Tat was demonstrated, significant basal expression was observed. To reduce basal expression, cis-acting negative regulatory elements from the env region of the HIV-1 genome were inserted in the 3' untranslated region of both the luc and DT-A constructs. This dramatically reduced basal expression from the HIV LTR, and now both viral regulatory proteins Tat and Rev were required for maximal trans-activation. Such regulation of DT-A expression might be therapeutically applied to selectively kill HIV-infected cells in acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and AIDS-related complex (ARC).