Human T cell leukemia virus type 1 is the causative agent of adult T cell leukemia. The virus encodes a 40-kDa protein, tax, that is important for the immortalization of T cells. Expression of tax activates several cellular transcription factors, including NF kappa B. We have previously identified two functional NF kappa B binding sites within the murine c-myc gene: upstream regulatory element (URE) and internal regulatory element (IRE). Using transient cotransfection analysis of Jurkat or HeLa cells, we report that tax can transactivate chimeric TK-CAT constructs containing multiple copies of wild-type URE or IRE, but not constructs with mutated versions of these elements. Furthermore, tax induced transcriptional activity of murine and human c-myc promoter-CAT hybrid genes in Jurkat and HeLa cells. A mutated tax expression vector, which fails to activate NF kappa B, was unable to induce either murine or human c-myc-CAT or URE/IRE-TK-CAT constructs. Mutant c-myc gene-CAT constructs, in which the URE and IRE were mutated either singly or in combination by site directed mutagenesis, displayed significantly reduced CAT activation upon cotransfection with a tax expression vector. These results suggest that tax can transactivate the c-myc gene through NF kappa B. The tax-induced stimulation of this oncogene may play a role in T cell immortalization.