Murine leukemia virus (MuLV) codes for two precursors of the group-specific antigens, Pr65gag and Pr75gag, in vivo. While Pr65gag is the precursor to the virion structural proteins, Pr75gag undergoes glycosylation and is found on the surface of the infected cell as gp85gag, and it is thought to play a role in virus maturation and spread. Pr65gag synthesis starts at an AUG codon within a favourable initiation context (AAUAUGG at positions 618 to 624). The gp85gag start codon is upstream but its precise location is not known. To map the initiation codon of gp85gag, we used deletion and site-directed mutagenesis of the leader sequence of MuLV RNA and in vitro translation of the RNAs. Synthesis of the MuLV gp85gag protein appears to be initiated at a CUG codon located within a favourable context (ACCCUGG at positions 354 to 359 for Moloney-MuLV). The possible function of gp85gag was investigated by expressing Moloney-MuLV and Friend-MuLV proviral DNA and mutants deficient for gp85gag synthesis in mouse and rat cells. The results indicate that the gp85gag protein probably facilitates the spread of virus infection in tissue culture.