BACKGROUND: In vivo studies on HIV-1 pathogenesis and testing of antiviral strategies have been hampered by the lack of an immunocompetent small animal model that is highly susceptible to HIV-1 infection. Since native rodents are non-permissive, we developed transgenic rats that selectively express the HIV-1 receptor complex, hCD4 and hCCR5, on relevant target cells. These animals display a transient low-level plasma viremia after HIV-1YU-2 infection, demonstrating HIV-1 susceptibility in vivo. However, unlike macrophages, primary CD4 T-cells from double-transgenic animals fail to support viral spread ex vivo. To identify quantitative limitations or absolute blocks in this rodent species, we quantitatively assessed the efficiency of key steps in the early phase of the viral replication cycle in a side-by-side comparison in infected cell lines and primary T-cells from hCD4/hCCR5-transgenic rats and human donors. RESULTS: Levels of virus entry, HIV-1 cDNA synthesis, nuclear import, and integration into the host genome were shown to be remarkably similar in cell lines and, where technically accessible, in primary T-cells from both species. In contrast, a profound impairment at the level of early HIV gene expression was disclosed at the single-cell level in primary rat T-cells and most other rat-derived cells. Macrophages were a notable exception, possibly reflecting the unique transcriptional milieu in this evolutionarily conserved target cell of all lentiviruses. Importantly, transient trans-complementation by ex vivo nucleofection with the Tat-interacting protein Cyclin T1 of human origin markedly elevated HIV gene expression in primary rat T-cells. CONCLUSION: This is the first study that has quantitatively determined the efficiency of consecutive steps in the HIV-1 replication cycle in infected primary HIV target cells from a candidate transgenic small animal and compared it to human cells. Unlike cells derived from mice or rabbits, rat cells complete all of the early steps in the HIV-1 replication cycle, including provirus integration in vivo, with high efficiency. A deficiency in gene expression was disclosed at the single cell level and could be counteracted by the human pTEFb transcription complex factor Cyclin T1. Collectively, these results provide the basis for the advancement of this transgenic rat model through strategies aimed at boosting HIV-1 gene expression in primary rat CD4 T-cells, including human Cyclin T1 transgenesis.