BACKGROUND: Macrophages are important targets and long-lived reservoirs of HIV-1, which are not cleared of infection by currently available treatments. In the primary monocyte-derived macrophage model of infection, replication is initially productive followed by a decline in virion output over ensuing weeks, coincident with a decrease in the levels of the essential viral transactivator protein Tat. We investigated two possible mechanisms in macrophages for regulation of viral replication, which appears to be primarily regulated at the level of tat mRNA: 1) differential mRNA stability, used by cells and some viruses for the rapid regulation of gene expression and 2) control of HIV-1 alternative splicing, which is essential for optimal viral replication. RESULTS: Following termination of transcription at increasing times after infection in macrophages, we found that tat mRNA did indeed decay more rapidly than rev or nef mRNA, but with similar kinetics throughout infection. In addition, tat mRNA decayed at least as rapidly in peripheral blood lymphocytes. Expression of cellular splicing factors in uninfected and infected macrophage cultures from the same donor showed an inverse pattern over time between enhancing factors (members of the SR family of RNA binding proteins) and inhibitory factors (members of the hnRNP family). While levels of the SR protein SC35 were greatly up-regulated in the first week or two after infection, hnRNPs of the A/B and H groups were down-regulated. Around the peak of virus production in each culture, SC35 expression declined to levels in uninfected cells or lower, while the hnRNPs increased to control levels or above. We also found evidence for increased cytoplasmic expression of SC35 following long-term infection. CONCLUSION: While no evidence of differential regulation of tat mRNA decay was found in macrophages following HIV-1 infection, changes in the balance of cellular splicing factors which regulate alternative viral pre-mRNA splicing were observed. These changes correlated with changes in Tat expression and virus production and could play an important role in viral persistence in macrophages. This mechanism could provide a novel target for control of infection in this critical cell type, which would be necessary for eventual eradication of the virus from infected individuals.