Modified vaccinia Ankara (MVA), a highly attenuated vaccinia virus strain that has been safety tested in humans, was evaluated for use as an expression vector. MVA has multiple genomic deletions and is severely host cell restricted: it grows well in avian cells but is unable to multiply in human and most other mammalian cells tested. Nevertheless, we found that replication of viral DNA appeared normal and that both early and late viral proteins were synthesized in human cells. Proteolytic processing of viral structural proteins was inhibited, however, and only immature virus particles were detected by electron microscopy. We constructed an insertion plasmid with the Escherichia coli lacZ gene under the control of the vaccinia virus late promoter P11, flanked by sequences of MVA DNA, to allow homologous recombination at the site of a naturally occurring 3500-base-pair deletion within the MVA genome. MVA recombinants were isolated and propagated in permissive avian cells and shown to express the enzyme beta-galactosidase upon infection of nonpermissive human cells. The amount of enzyme made was similar to that produced by a recombinant of vaccinia virus strain Western Reserve, which also had the lacZ gene under control of the P11 promoter, but multiplied to high titers. Since recombinant gene expression is unimpaired in nonpermissive human cells, MVA may serve as a highly efficient and exceptionally safe vector.