The Rex proteins of types I and II human T-cell leukemia viruses (HTLV-I, HTLV-II) are required for expression of the viral structural gene products, gag and env and, thus, are essential for the replication of these pathogenic retroviruses. The action of Rex is sequence specific, requiring the presence of a cis-acting Rex response element located in the 3' long terminal repeat. This element corresponds to a predicted RNA secondary structure and functions in an orientation-dependent but position-independent manner. Rex acts through this response element to stimulate the nuclear export of the unspliced or singly spliced viral mRNA species encoding the virion structural proteins that are normally excluded from the cytoplasm. Although the Rex proteins of HTLV-I and HTLV-II can also function via the related Rev response element present in the env gene of the type I human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1), the analogous HIV-1 Rev protein is unable to act on the HTLV-I Rex response element. This nonreciprocal pattern of genetic complementation by Rex and Rev suggests that these viral trans-regulators may interact directly with their RNA response elements.