Poxvirus expression vectors have gained widespread use for expression of foreign proteins and as delivery vehicles for vaccine antigens. We have developed a novel method using the poxvirus as a library vector for functional selection of specific cDNA. Poxviruses have several unique and useful properties as a library vector. Most importantly, because poxviruses are packaged into fully infectious particles in the cell cytoplasm, specific recombinants can be readily recovered even from a very small number of selected cells. Moreover, in contrast to libraries constructed in retrovirus or plasmid-based vectors, recombinant vaccinia virus can be efficiently recovered even from cells that have been induced to undergo apoptosis or cessation of cell growth. In the past, the major obstacle in this application to poxviruses has been the low frequency with which recombinants can be generated. The most commonly used method to construct recombinant poxvirus is homologous recombination. The frequency of recombinants derived in this manner is of the order of 0.1%, sufficient to recover a recombinant of a purified DNA clone in a transfer plasmid, but far too low to permit construction of a representative cDNA library. We have developed a method that generates nearly 100% recombinant vaccinia viruses at good titer. We have termed this method trimolecular recombination. cDNA libraries of as many as 107 or more independent viral recombinants can be constructed by trimolecular recombination. For the first time, large, diverse, and representative cDNA libraries can be screened in a vaccinia virus-based expression vector.