Most retroviral packaging cell lines were established by a helper virus plasmid cotransfected with a separate plasmid encoding a selection marker. Since this selection marker coexisted in trans with the helper virus sequence, helper virus gene expression could be inactivated by host DNA methylation despite selection for the cotransfected selection marker. We have reported that DNA methylation could occur in the long terminal repeat (LTR) region of helper virus in vector producer cells (VPC) in up to 2% of the population per day (W. B. Young, G. L. Lindberg, and C. J. Link, Jr., J. Virol. 74:3177-3187, 2000). To overcome host cell DNA methylation that suppresses viral gene expression, we constructed a chimeric retroviral helper virus, pAM3-IRES-Zeo, that contains Moloney murine leukemia virus as a helper virus and a picornavirus internal ribosome entry site (IRES) sequence followed by a Zeocin selection marker at the 3' end of the env sequence. This pAM3-IRES-Zeo permitted selection for intact and functional helper virus in transfected cells without subcloning. By selection with Zeocin, a mixed population of pAM3-IRES-Zeo-transfected NIH3T3 cells (AMIZ cells) was maintained with little or no DNA methylation of the helper virus 5' LTR. The high level of pAM3-IRES-Zeo gene expression resulted in no detectable vector superinfection and in high vector titers (2 x 10(6) to 1.5 x 10(7) CFU/ml) after introduction of a retroviral vector. When Zeocin selection was withdrawn from AMIZ cells, methylation of the 5' LTR increased from 17 to 36% of the population during 67 days of continuous culture and the cells became susceptible to superinfection. During this period, gene expression of pAM3-IRES-Zeo decreased and vector titer production was reduced to 2 x 10(4) CFU/ml. These data demonstrate an important role of DNA methylation in the genetic instability of VPC. The chimeric helper virus allows the establishment of a mixed population of packaging cells capable of high-level and sustained vector production without cloning procedures.