Rates of transcriptions of the human immunodeficiency virus are greatly increased by the viral trans activator Tat. In vitro, Tat binds to the 5' bulge of the trans-activation response (TAR) RNA stem-loop, which is present in all viral transcripts. In human cells, the central loop in TAR and its cellular RNA-binding proteins are also critical for the function of Tat. Previously, we demonstrated that in rodent cells (CHO cells), but not in those which contain the human chromosome 12 (CHO12 cells), Tat-TAR interactions are compromised. In this study, we examined the roles of the bulge and loop in TAR in Tat trans activation in these cells. Whereas low levels of trans activation depended solely on interactions between Tat and the bulge in CHO cells, high levels of trans activation depended also on interactions between Tat and the loop in CHO12 cells. Since the TAR loop binding proteins in these two cell lines were identical and different from their human counterpart, the human chromosome 12 does not encode TAR loop binding proteins. In vivo binding competition studies with TAR decoys confirmed that the binding of Tat to TAR is more efficient in CHO12 cells. Thus, the protein(s) encoded on human chromosome 12 helps to tether Tat to TAR via its loop, which results in high levels of trans activation.