Large amounts of histones, H1, H2A, H2B, H3, and H4, were observed in total extracts of T4 lymphocytes and derived cell lines infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) type 1 or type 2. These histones were simply detectable by analysis of crude cellular extracts by polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis in SDS and staining the proteins with Coomassie blue or by immunoblot assays using specific polyclonal antibodies. The histones were found to be localized in the nucleoplasm, bound to low molecular weight (LMW) DNA in the form of nucleosomes. The mechanism responsible for the accumulation of nucleosomes during HIV infection was found to be due to fragmentation of cellular DNA, a mechanism referred to as apoptosis or programmed cell death in which a nuclear endonuclease becomes activated and cleaves DNA at internucleosomal regions. Accordingly, the LMW DNA accumulated in the course of infection was found to have a characteristic pattern of nucleosomal ladder and its accumulation was reduced in the presence of zinc, a known inhibitor of the endonuclease. Routinely in acute HIV infections, the accumulation of nucleosomes was observed at least 24 hr before lysis of infected cells. In a particular HIV-1 infection, in which the first signals of the cytopathic effect (vacuolization of cells and appearance of syncytia) was observed at Days 6-7 whereas maximal virus production occurred at Days 10-17, the accumulation of nucleosomes was at its maximal level already on Day 6 postinfection. In the nucleoplasm of chronically infected cells producing virus but not manifesting a cytopathic effect, no LMW DNA or histones were detectable. These observations indicate that the cytopathic effect of HIV infection is associated with apoptosis. The detection of histones and oligonucleosomal DNA fragments in the nucleoplasm can be used as a convenient marker for chromatin fragmentation during this process.