Substitution, insertion and deletion mutations have been constructed at the XmnI restriction site in cos lambda. The XmnI site is located between cosB, the site where terminase binds lambda DNA; and cosN, the site where terminase introduces staggered nicks to generate cohesive ends. Substitution mutations and deletion of a base pair (a -1 change) do not obviously affect lambda growth and DNA packaging. Changes of -2, +2 and -3 render lambda unable to grow on host cells lacking integration host factor (IHF). The -3 mutant has a reduced burst size in IHF+ cells, due to a defect in the initiation of packaging. A -7 deletion mutation is lethal. Models for the basis of these mutational effects are discussed.