We have previously shown that a major site of persistence of human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) in healthy carriers is in peripheral blood monocytes. However, monocytes are difficult to infect in vitro with HCMV, and HCMV gene expression cannot be reproducibly detected in peripheral blood cells of healthy carriers. Here we show that the monocytic cell line THP1 is non-permissive for HCMV infection due to a block in expression of the HCMV major immediate early (IE) promoter. This repression is correlated with the presence of a differentiation-specific cellular factor which binds to the imperfect dyad symmetry and the 21 bp enhancer repeats of the major IE promoter regulatory region and which has characteristics of MBF1, a factor which we have previously defined in HCMV non-permissive, undifferentiated teratocarcinoma cells. Both differentiation of THP1 cells into macrophages, which results in a decrease in this factor, or deletion of the factor's binding sites from the IE promoter/enhancer lifts this repression and permits expression from the major IE promoter.