The presence of budding C-type and intracytoplasmic A-type particles in Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells is well documented. However, extensive screening has failed to detect any evidence of infectivity. Continuous-flow ultracentrifugation has been used to concentrate extracellular particles from culture fluid of a recombinant CHO cell subclone for molecular characterization. Particles exhibiting reverse transcriptase activity and associated with mammalian C-type retrovirus structural proteins banded in sucrose gradients at a density characteristic of retroviruses. Examination of gradient-purified particles by electron microscopy revealed morphology and size similar to other retroviruses. Double-gradient-purified particles contained RNA which hybridized to probes for murine leukemia virus, and endogenous Chinese hamster intracisternal A-particle elements. DNA sequence analysis of a cDNA clone isolated from purified particles revealed multiple interruptions of the endonuclease reading frame, providing one possible explanation for the noninfectious nature of the observed particles. Sequences present as RNA in purified particles were also present as conserved, repetitive, provirus sequences in genomic DNA of all CHO cell lines examined and in Chinese hamster liver DNA. The observed particles are therefore likely to be the products of endogenous retroviruslike elements present in the germline of Chinese hamsters.