The leader (L) proteins encoded by picornaviruses of the genus Cardiovirus [Theiler's murine encephalomyelitis virus (TMEV) and Encephalomyocarditis virus (EMCV)] are small proteins thought to exert important functions in virus-host interactions. The L protein of persistent TMEV strains was shown to be dispensable for virus replication in vitro, but crucial for long-term persistence of the virus in the central nervous system of the mouse. The phenotype of chimeric viruses generated by exchanging the L-coding regions was analysed and it was shown that the L proteins of neurovirulent and persistent TMEV strains are functionally interchangeable in vitro and in vivo, despite the fact that L is the second most divergent protein encoded by these viruses after the L* protein. The L protein encoded by EMCV and Mengo virus (an EMCV strain) shares about 35 % amino acid identity with that of TMEV. It differs from the latter by lacking a serine/threonine-rich C-terminal domain and by carrying phosphorylated residues not conserved in the TMEV L protein. Our data show that, in spite of these differences, the L protein of Mengo virus shares, with that of TMEV, the ability to inhibit the transcription of type I interferon, cytokine and chemokine genes and to interfere with nucleocytoplasmic trafficking of host-cell proteins. Interestingly, analysis of viral RNA replication of the recombinant viruses raised the hypothesis that L proteins of TMEV and EMCV diverged during evolution to adapt to the different replication fitness of these viruses.