Continuing controversy surrounds the cellular effects of the Nef protein of HIV-1, a nonstructural protein expressed by most isolates. Highly purified protein isoforms of MW 27 kDa (Nef 27) and 25 kDa (Nef 25), produced in Escherichia coli by translation from the first and second start codons of HIV-1 nef clone pNL4.3, respectively, were introduced into cells by a sophisticated electroporation technique which uses electric field rather than electric charge to transfer macromolecules across cell membranes. Electroporation of Nef 27 reduced the expression of cell surface CD4 by 30-50%, as measured by flow cytometry, on phytohemagglutinin (PHA)-activated PBMC as well as on a variety of CD4+ T-cell lines (MT-2, CEM, and Jurkat). Reduction in surface CD4 was observed in all cells of the CD4+ T-cell lines but only in the CD4+ cells of the mixed PBMC population. Electroporation of Nef 27 into MT-2 cells and PHA-activated PBMC also reduced the expression of IL-2R to background levels. Other cell surface antigens analyzed such as CD2, CD7, or transferrin receptor (TfR) were not affected by the introduction of HIV-1 Nef 27. In contrast to the effects of Nef 27, electroporation of Nef 25 into cells at equivalent concentrations did not affect the surface expression of CD4 and IL-2R. These data show that the HIV-1 clone pNL4.3 Nef 27 but not the Nef 25 isoform specifically decreases expression of two cell surface receptors important for antigen recognition of MHC class II antigens and for cell proliferation. Production of Nef 27 during HIV-1 infection of cells of the immune system may contribute to immunodeficiency even in the absence of direct viral cytopathic effects.