Paired helical filaments (PHF) are the principal pathologic components of neurofibrillary tangles in Alzheimer's disease (AD). To reproduce the formation of PHF in tissue culture, we stably expressed human tau with and without pathogenic mutations in human SH-SY5Y cells and exposed them for 5 days to aggregated synthetic beta-amyloid peptide (A beta 42). This caused a decreased solubility of tau along with the generation of PHF-like tau-containing filaments. These were 20 nm wide and had periodicities of 130-140 nm in the presence of P301L mutant tau or 150-160 nm in the presence of wild-type tau. Mutagenesis of the phosphoepitope serine 422 of tau prevented both the A beta 42-mediated decrease in solubility and the generation of PHF-like filaments, suggesting a role of serine 422 or its phosphorylation in tau filament formation. Together, our data underscore a role of A beta 42 in the formation of PHF-like filaments. Our culture system will be useful to map phosphoepitopes of tau involved in PHF formation and to identify and characterize modifiers of the tau pathology. Further adaptation of the system may allow the screening and validation of compounds designed to prevent PHF formation.