The primary 2A/2B cleavage within cardiovirus polyprotein was examined by construction of cDNA plasmids which linked fragments from the P2 region of encephalomyocarditis virus (EMCV) and Mengovirus genomes to the EMCV 5' nontranslated region. When RNA transcripts from these clones were tested in reticulocyte extracts, the synthesized proteins were cotranslationally processed at the 2A/2B site. No viral segments outside of the P2 region were required for this activity. Engineered deletions which removed the amino-terminal two-thirds of protein 2A or the carboxyl half of protein 2B had no effect on this scission, nor did insertions into a Ser-Ala-Phe sequence (SAF) within 2B, which is conserved in most cardio- and aphthoviruses. In contrast, mutations which disrupted a conserved Asn-Pro-Gly-Pro (NPGP) sequence abolished primary scission. Precursors thus inactivated were unable to serve as substrate when simultaneously expressed with active (wild-type) 2AB sequences. Microsequencing placed the EMCV primary cleavage site between the Gly/Pro pair within the NPGP sequence. It was also determined that endogenous viral protease 3C is the previously unidentified agent responsible for cardiovirus 1D/2A scission, a cleavage that is part of the primary processing reaction in poliovirus.