Using a HeLa cell line stably transfected with the tat gene from human immunodeficiency virus type 1, we have found that the expression of the regulatory Tat protein suppresses the expression of cellular Mn-containing superoxide dismutase (Mn-SOD). This enzyme is one of the cell's primary defenses against oxygen-derived free radicals and is vital for maintaining a healthy balance between oxidants and antioxidants. The parental HeLa cells expressed nearly equivalent amounts of Cu,Zn- and Mn-SOD isozymes. Those cells expressing the Tat protein, however, contained 52% less Mn-SOD activity than parental cells, whereas that of the Cu,Zn enzyme was essentially unchanged. The steady-state levels of Mn-SOD-specific RNAs were also lower in the HeLa-tat cell line than in the parental line. No difference was seen in the steady-state levels of Cu,Zn-SOD-specific RNAs. In addition to the decreased Mn-SOD-activity, HeLa-tat cell showed evidence of increased oxidative stress. Carbonyl proteins were markedly higher, and total cellular sulfhydryl content decreased in cell extracts at a faster rate, probably reflecting ongoing lipid peroxidation. HeLa and HeLa-tat extracts were incubated with radiolabeled Mn-SOD transcripts, and the reaction products were subjected to UV crosslinking, digestion with ribonuclease A, and electrophoretic analysis. The results suggest a direct interaction between Tat protein and Mn-SOD gene transcripts.