The roles of the CD4 receptor and the src kinase p56lck were examined in the process of HIV-induced apoptosis of CD4+ T lymphocytes. The presence of the CD4 cytoplasmic tail was found to be essential in delivering an apoptotic signal, and interaction of CD4 with p56lck potentiated HIV-induced apoptosis. Apoptosis, but not HIV replication, was abrogated by deleting the NH2-terminal intracytoplasmic tail of CD4, or by mutating the two critical cysteines in this tail that are responsible for CD4-p56lck interaction. Introduction of p56lck in C8166-45 or MT-2 cells, CD4+ T cell lines deficient for this protein, greatly increased HIV-induced apoptosis and syncytium formation. The ability of p56lck to deliver an apoptotic signal did not depend on its kinase function, since a kinase-deficient mutant was as effective as its normal counterpart in inducing apoptosis, suggesting that p56lck may act as an adapter to anchor other proteins to transduce the death signal.