Although virus infections have been classically studied with "cell-free" virion preparations, many animal viruses are able to spread both in vitro and in vivo by inducing cell-cell fusion. An efficient system to monitor the cell-to-cell spread of HIV-1 has been developed employing chronically infected H9 donor cells. Under appropriate conditions of cocultivation with uninfected cells, the synthesis of unintegrated viral DNA, monitored by Southern blot hybridization, occurred between 2 and 4 hr following infection; viral proteins were detected 8 to 12 hr following cocultivation and progeny virions were released into the medium by 16 hr. The use of metabolic inhibitors or specific envelope/receptor antibodies revealed that the cell-to-cell spread of HIV required: (1) gp120-CD4 interaction and (2) reverse transcription. Light and electron microscopy, fluorescent dye redistribution, and soluble CD4 competition experiments all demonstrated that the HIV-induced cell-cell fusion began within 10 to 30 min of cocultivation. Surprisingly, the electron microscopic analyses also suggested that budding or mature virus particles did not participate in this process. Thus the virus-induced cell-cell fusion observed is very likely the result of gp120/gp41 proteins, on the surface of infected cells, interacting with CD4 molecules on uninfected cells. These findings are of immediate importance in understanding the mechanism(s) of HIV-1 transmission in vivo and for the design of effective vaccines and antiviral agents.