A nuclear localization signal (NLS) has been identified in the N-terminal (Ala1-Pro-Lys-Arg-Lys-Ser-Gly-Val-Ser-Lys-Cys11) amino acid sequence of the polyomavirus major capsid protein VP1. The importance of this amino acid sequence for nuclear transport of VP1 protein was demonstrated by a genetic "subtractive" study using the constructs pSG5VP1 (full-length VP1) and pSG5 delta 5'VP1 (truncated VP1, lacking amino acids Ala1-Cys11). These constructs were used to transfect COS-7 cells, and expression and intracellular localization of the VP1 protein was visualized by indirect immunofluorescence. These studies revealed that the full-length VP1 was expressed and localized in the nucleus, while the truncated VP1 protein was localized in the cytoplasm and not transported to the nucleus. These findings were substantiated by an "additive" approach using FITC-labeled conjugates of synthetic peptides homologous to the NLS of VP1 cross-linked to bovine serum albumin or immunoglobulin G. Both conjugates localized in the nucleus after microinjection into the cytoplasm of 3T6 cells. The importance of individual amino acids found in the basic sequence (Lys3-Arg-Lys5) of the NLS was also investigated. This was accomplished by synthesizing three additional peptides in which lysine-3 was substituted with threonine, arginine-4 was substituted with threonine, or lysine-5 was substituted with threonine. It was found that lysine-3 was crucial for nuclear transport, since substitution of this amino acid with threonine prevented nuclear localization of the microinjected, FITC-labeled conjugate.