The effects of glutathione (GSH), glutathione ester (GSE), and N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC) on the induction of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) expression were investigated in the chronically infected monocytic U1 cell line, a previously described cellular model for HIV latency. U1 cells constitutively express low levels of virus, which can be increased by phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA), tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), interleukin 6 (IL-6), and other inducers. GSH, GSE, and NAC suppressed in a dose-dependent fashion the induction of HIV expression mediated by PMA, TNF-alpha, and IL-6, in the absence of cytotoxic or cytostatic effects. Reverse transcriptase activity, inducible by PMA, TNF-alpha, or IL-6, was decreased by 80-90% after pretreatment with GSH, GSE, or NAC. The induction of total HIV protein synthesis was also decreased appreciably after pretreatment with GSH, GSE, or NAC. The accumulation of HIV mRNA was substantially suppressed after pretreatment with NAC but to a lesser extent after pretreatment with GSH or GSE. Although PMA induces the expression of TNF-alpha in U1 cells, the suppressive effect of GSH, GSE, and NAC on PMA-induced HIV expression in U1 cells was not associated with the inhibition of TNF-alpha expression. The present findings, which elucidate relationships between cellular GSH and HIV expression, suggest that therapy with thiols may be of value in the treatment of HIV infection.