KG111 is a mutant of herpes simplex virus (HSV), strain KOS, that exhibits temperature-dependent drug resistance. For example, it is almost as resistant as a thymidine kinase (tk)-deficient virus at 39 degrees, but is relatively sensitive to acyclovir at 34 degrees, Using marker transfer techniques, we have mapped the mutation conferring temperature-dependent drug resistance in KG111 to the 5' portion of the tk gene. Sequencing of this region revealed an amber mutation at codon 44, which lies between the first and second methionine codons of the tk polypeptide. This mutation is identical to that found in TK4, an HSV mutant derived from Cl 101 (L. Haarr et al., 1985, J. Virol. 56, 512-519). Analyses of immunoprecipitated tk proteins from KG111- and TK4-infected cells showed that KG111 and TK4 do not synthesize full-length tk polypeptides, but instead produce a truncated form of the protein. Small amounts of a similar truncated tk polypeptide are also produced in wild-type-infected cells and are thought to arise from initiation at a downstream AUG. The relative amounts and size of the mutant tk proteins compared with those of the wild-type are consistent with the amber mutation eliminating translation of full-length polypeptide and causing a four- to fivefold increase in the utilization of downstream AUG codons for initiation. The truncated polypeptides specified by KG111 and TK4 are less stable than the full-length polypeptide at 39 degrees, which may contribute to the conditional drug-resistant phenotype. On the other hand, the truncated polypeptides normally expressed by wild-type virus at low levels and the more highly expressed truncated tk polypeptides from a deletion mutant are relatively stable at 39 degrees. These results suggest that stability of the truncated tk polypeptide is influenced by the amount of tk present.