Human papillomavirus (HPV) types 1, 2, and 4 together comprise the major cause of cutaneous papillomas in the general population. We have aligned the genomes of these three viruses by partial sequence analysis, and have sequenced the E4 open reading frames (ORFs) of HPV 2 and HPV 4. After expression as beta-gal fusion proteins in bacteria, antibodies raised to the putative E4 gene-products of both virus types were used to identify the native E4 proteins in naturally occurring tumors. At the primary amino acid sequence level, the E4 protein of HPV 2 was found to be most homologous with those of HPV 6 and 11 and was not closely related to those of HPV 1 or 4. Although the E4 ORF represents a region of weak homology amongst papillomaviruses, the E4 encoded proteins showed significant conservation in their physical characteristics. Like those of HPV 1, the E4 proteins of both HPV 2 and HPV 4 were found to be composed of a major low-molecular-weight doublet (16.5/18K for HPV 2, 20/21K for HPV 4, c.f. 16/17K for HPV 1) along with minor high-molecular-weight species, which probably represent dimers of the smaller proteins, (33K for HPV 2, 40K for HPV 4, c.f. 32/34K for HPV 1). The E4 products of all three virus types were multiply charged, and exhibited a characteristic migration pattern following alkaline urea gel electrophoresis. Although the levels of E4 expression in tumors induced by the different virus types was very different, this was found to correlate closely with the level of virus production characteristic of each virus type. In all three cases, E4 proteins were found to be primarily cytoplasmic, and to be associated with the distinctive cytoplasmic inclusion granules characteristic of each virus type. The poor sequence conservation between the E4 protein of HPVs 1, 2, and 4, taken alongside the ability of these viruses to infect similar histological sites, suggests that E4 may not be involved in determining tissue specificity. Our results suggest conserved physical characteristics (acidic, multiply charged, ability to form dimers) and similar site of expression may be the important factors for E4 function.