In the Gag-Pol polyprotein of HIV-1, the 99-amino acid protease is flanked at its N-terminus by a transframe region (TFR) composed of the transframe octapeptide (TFP) and 48 amino acids of the p6pol, separated by a protease cleavage site. The intact precursor (TFP-p6pol-PR) has very low dimer stability relative to that of the mature enzyme and exhibits negligible levels of stable tertiary structure. Thus, the TFR functions by destabilizing the native structure, unlike proregions found in zymogen forms of monomeric aspartic proteases. Cleavage at the p6pol-PR site to release a free N-terminus of protease is concomitant with the appearance of enzymatic activity and formation of a stable tertiary structure that is characteristic of the mature protease as demonstrated by nuclear magnetic resonance. The release of the mature protease from the precursor can either occur in two steps at pH values of 4 to 6 or in a single step above pH 6. The mature protease forms a dimer through a four-stranded beta-sheet at the interface. Residues 1-4 of the mature protease from each subunit constitute the outer strands of the beta-sheet, and are essential for maintaining the stability of the free protease but are not a prerequisite for the formation of tertiary structure and catalytic activity. Our experimental results provide the basis for the model proposed here for the regulation of the HIV-1 protease in the viral replication cycle.