Synthetic peptides have been used to investigate the site specificity of highly purified virus induced protein kinase, a recently discovered protein kinase isolated from cells infected with alpha-herpesviruses. The enzyme from cells infected with pseudorabies virus can catalyse the phosphorylation of both seryl and threonyl residues in peptides that contain several arginyl residues on the amino-terminal side of the target residue. At least two arginyl residues are required, and the best substrates examined contain four to six such residues. Virus induced protein kinase differs in site specificity from protein kinase C in being unable to phosphorylate peptides in which multiple arginyl residues are on the carboxyl-terminal side of the target residue, or to phosphorylate peptides in which the arginyl residues are replaced by ornithyl residues. Virus induced protein kinase from cells infected with herpes simplex virus type I had similar substrate preferences to virus induced protein kinase from cells infected with pseudorabies virus. Although virus induced protein kinase and the cyclic AMP-dependent protein kinase have several peptide substrates in common, their relative preferences for these (as indicated by Km values) were found to be very different.