The human immunodeficiency virus type 1 transactivator protein, Tat, stimulates transcriptional elongation from the viral long terminal repeat. To test whether Tat associates directly with activated transcription complexes, we have used the lac repressor protein (LacR) to "trap" elongating RNA polymerases. The arrested transcription complexes were purified by binding biotinylated templates to streptaviridin-coated magnetic beads. Transcription complexes were released from the magnetic beads following cleavage of the templates with restriction enzymes and were immunoblotted with antibodies to Tat, LacR and RNA polymerase II. The Tat protein copurified with RNA polymerase bound to wild-type templates but did not copurify with transcription complexes prepared by using templates carrying mutations in the transactivation response element (TAR) RNA. We conclude that Tat and cellular cofactors become attached to the transcription complex during its transit through TAR.