Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is characterized by marked depletion of the T4+ helper subset of T cells. The aetiological agent of the disease, the human T-lymphotropic virus type III (HTLV-III)/lymphadenopathy-associated virus (LAV), specifically kills T4+ cells in vitro. Part of this specificity for the T4+ population residues in the relative efficiency with which HTLV-III infects these cells, as a result of a specific interaction between the T4 molecule and the virus envelope glycoprotein. In addition, the cytotoxic consequences of HTLV-III replication are dependent on cell type, as certain lymphoid and myeloid cells can be productively infected without notable cytopathic effect. Here we investigate the basis for the specific cytotoxicity of the virus, and report that high-level expression of the HTLV-III envelope gene induces syncytia and concomitant cell death in T4+ cell lines but not in a B-lymphocyte line. Syncytium formation depends on the interaction of envelope-expressing cells with neighbouring cells bearing surface T4 molecules. These results explain, at least in part, the specific cytopathic effect of HTLV-III infections.