Transient transfection of ras expression vectors into human fibroblasts and astrocytes has been used to test the hypothesis that p21 ras, a known membrane signal transductor, may participate in pathways linking cellular activation and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) reactivation. Expression vectors carrying the chloramphenicol acetyl transferase coding sequence under the control of various fragments of the long terminal repeat (LTR) of HIV were co-transfected with expression vectors of the mutated (val 12) c-Ha-ras gene or of its normal counterpart. Both forms of the ras gene induced transactivation of the HIV-LTR via the two direct repeat sequences which constitute the HIV enhancer. This repeat sequence was shown to be sufficient for ras-induced LTR transactivation. Other LTR sequences tested were not found to be responsive to co-transfected ras expression vectors. Deletion of the TAR sequence impaired the response to tat, but not to ras co-transfection. The mutated ras gene was more efficient than the proto-oncogene in activating the HIV enhancer. Transfection of ras was shown to enhance transcription of a complete provirus DNA clone of HIV-1. Such findings may shed new light on the mechanisms through which cell membrane activation signals result in HIV reactivation.