Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) produces three envelope glycoproteins, the attachment glycoprotein (G), the fusion (F) protein, and the small hydrophobic (SH) protein. It had been assumed, by analogy with other paramyxoviruses, that the G and F proteins would be required for the first two steps of viral entry, attachment and fusion. However, following repeated passage in cell culture, a viable mutant RSV that lacked both the G and SH genes was isolated (R. A. Karron, D. A. Buonagurio, A. F. Georgiu, S. S. Whitehead, J. E. Adamus, M. L. Clements-Mann, D. O. Harris, V. B. Randolph, S. A. Udem, B. R. Murphy, and M. S. Sidhu, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 94:13,961--13,966, 1997). To explore the roles of the G, F, and SH proteins in virion assembly, function, and cytopathology, we have modified the full-length RSV cDNA and used it to rescue infectious RSV lacking the G and/or SH genes. The three resulting viruses and the parental virus all contain the green fluorescent protein (GFP) gene that serves to identify infected cells. We have used purified, radiolabeled virions to examine virus production and function, in conjunction with GFP to quantify infected cells. We found that the G protein enhances virion binding to target cells but plays no role in penetration after attachment. The G protein also enhances cell-to-cell fusion, presumably via cell-to-cell binding, and enhances virion assembly or release. The presence or absence of the G protein in virions has no obvious effect on the content of F protein or host cell proteins in the virion. In growth curve experiments, the viruses lacking the G protein produced viral titers that were at least 10-fold lower than titers of viruses containing the G protein. This reduction is due in large part to the less efficient release of virions and the lower infectivity of the released virions. In the absence of the G protein, virus expressing both the F and SH proteins displayed somewhat smaller plaques, lower fusion activity, and slower viral entry than the virus expressing the F protein alone, suggesting that the SH protein has a negative effect on virus fusion in cell culture.