- Background The positive transcription elongation factor b (P-TEFb) plays an essential role in activating HIV genome transcription. It is recruited to the HIV LTR promoter through an interaction between the Tat viral protein and its Cyclin T1 subunit. P-TEFb activity is inhibited by direct binding of its subunit Cyclin T (1 or 2) with Hexim (1 or 2), a cellular protein, bound to the 7SK small nuclear RNA. Hexim1 competes with Tat for P-TEFb binding. Results Mutations that impair human Cyclin T1/Hexim1 interaction were searched using systematic mutagenesis of these proteins coupled with a yeast two-hybrid screen for loss of protein interaction. Evolutionary conserved Hexim1 residues belonging to an unstructured peptide located N-terminal of the dimerization domain, were found to be critical for P-TEFb binding. Random mutagenesis of the N-terminal region of Cyclin T1 provided identification of single amino-acid mutations that impair Hexim1 binding in human cells. Furthermore, conservation of critical residues supported the existence of a functional Hexim1 homologue in nematodes. Conclusions Single Cyclin T1 amino-acid mutations that impair Hexim1 binding are located on a groove between the two cyclin folds and define a surface overlapping the HIV-1 Tat protein binding surface. One residue, Y175, in the centre of this groove was identified as essential for both Hexim1 and Tat binding to P-TEFb as well as for HIV transcription.