Background: HIV-1 does not encode a helicase and hijacks those of the cell for efficient replication. We and others previously showed that the DEAD box helicase, DDX5, is an essential HIV dependency factor. DDX5 was recently shown to be associated with the 7SK snRNP. Cellular positive transcription elongation factor b (P-TEFb) is bound in an inactive form with HEXIM1/2 on 7SK snRNP. The Tat/P-TEFb complex is essential for efficient processivity of Pol II in HIV-1 transcription elongation and Tat competes with HEXIM1/2 for P-TEFb. We investigated the precise role of DDX5 in HIV replication using siRNA mediated knockdown and rescue with DDX5 mutants which prevent protein-protein interactions and RNA and ATP binding. Results: We demonstrate a critical role for DDX5 in the Tat/HEXIM1 interaction. DDX5 acts to potentiate Tat activity and can bind both Tat and HEXIM1 suggesting it may facilitate the dissociation of HEXIM1/2 from the 7SK-snRNP complex, enhancing Tat/P-TEFb availability. We show knockdown of DDX5 in a T cell line significantly reduces HIV-1 infectivity and viral protein production. This activity is unique to DDX5 and cannot be substituted by its close paralog DDX17. Overexpression of DDX5 stimulates the Tat/LTR promoter but suppresses other cellular and viral promoters. Individual mutations of conserved ATP binding, RNA binding, helicase related or protein binding motifs within DDX5 show that the N terminal RNA binding motifs, the Walker B and the glycine doublet motifs are essential for this function. The Walker A and RNA binding motifs situated on the transactivation domain are however dispensable. Conclusion: DDX5 is an essential cellular factor for efficient HIV transcription elongation. It interacts with Tat and may potentiate the availability of P-TEFb through sequestering HEXIM1.