The nef gene products encoded by human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) and simian immunodeficiency virus type 1 (SIV-1) increase viral loads in infected hosts and accelerate clinical progression to AIDS. Nef exhibits a spectrum of biological activities, including the ability to downregulate surface expression of CD4 and major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I antigens, to alter the state of T-cell activation, and to enhance the infectivity of viral particles. To determine which of these in vitro functions most closely correlates with the pathogenic effects of Nef in vivo, we constructed recombinant HIV-1 NL4-3 viruses carrying mutations within the nef gene that selectively impair these functions. These mutant viruses were evaluated for pathogenic potential in severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) mice implanted with human fetal thymus and liver (SCID-hu Thy/Liv mice), in which virus-mediated depletion of thymocytes is known to be Nef dependent. Disruption of the polyproline type II helix (Pxx)4 within Nef (required for binding of Hck and p21-activated kinase-like kinases, downregulation of MHC class I, and enhancement of HIV-1 infectivity in vitro but dispensable for CD4 downregulation) did not impair thymocyte depletion in virus-infected Thy/Liv human thymus implants. Conversely, three separate point mutations in Nef that compromised its ability to downregulate CD4 attenuated thymocyte depletion while not diminishing viral replication. These findings indicate that the functional ability of Nef to downregulate CD4 and not MHC class I downregulation, Hck or PAK binding, or (Pxx)4-associated enhancement of infectivity most closely correlates with Nef-mediated enhancement of HIV-1 pathogenicity in vivo. Nef-mediated CD4 downregulation merits consideration as a new target for the development of small-molecule inhibitors.