Induction of HIV expression through lymphocyte activation has been proposed as a strategy to purge latent reservoirs. Prostratin is a non-tumourogenic phorbol ester that delays HIV replication in vitro, but paradoxically activates HIV expression in latently infected cells. To get a better insight into the mechanisms of action of prostratin, we have analysed the effect of prostratin on HIV activation and HIV receptor and coreceptors' surface expression in human lymphocytes. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) were transfected with luciferase expression constructs under the control of wild type HIV-long terminal repeat (LTR) and consensus sequences for transcription factors involved in HIV-LTR transactivation (NF-kappaB, SP1, NFAT). Prostratin stimulates transactivation of LTR vectors, kappaB- and SP-1-driven luciferase constructs. In another set of experiments, PBMCs were transfected with a full-length infectious viral clone. Prostratin induced HIV transcription and viral expression as detected by luciferase activity in cellular extracts and p24 levels in culture supernatants, respectively. Expression of the HIV coreceptors CCR5 and CXCR4 was decreased by prostratin and, concomitantly, prostratin inhibited the infection of PBMCs with R5 and X4 strains. However, prostratin did not inhibit infection with a pseudotyped viral clone that enters into the cells independently of HIV receptors. These results help to explain the paradoxical effects of prostratin. On one hand, prostratin induces HIV activation in latently infected cells through the induction of NF-kappaB and Sp1. On the other hand, strong and persistent downregulation of HIV receptors decreases infection of new targets and delays HIV propagation. These data support the potential use of prostratin to activate HIV from latency and purge viral reservoirs.