Activator proteins that control transcription initiation by RNA polymerase II usually have two domains: one binds to DNA, and the other activates transcription. A particularly potent acidic activation domain at the C terminus of the herpes simplex virus protein VP16 binds directly and selectively to the human and yeast TATA box-binding factor TFIID. We have now investigated the biological significance of this in vitro interaction by using mutant forms of VP16. For changes at the critical phenylalanine residue at position 442 of VP16 there was a good correlation between transactivation activity in vivo and the binding of VP16 to TFIID in vitro. In contrast, mutants with reduced negative charge were more defective for binding than for activation.