The linear duplex DNA molecule of varicella-zoster virus is 120 000 bp in size and has the sequence arrangement UL-IRS-US-TRS, where UL and US are unique sequences and IRS and TRS are inverted repeats flanking US. The primary structure of the cloned SstI g DNA fragment containing US (5232 bp) and adjacent portions of IRS and TRS (426 bp of each) was determined, and the following model for genetic expression was derived from an analysis of the sequence. The region specifies four mRNAs encoding primary translation products with mol. wts. of 11, 44, 39 and either 74 or 70 kd. The 39-and 70-kd proteins have primary structures characteristic of membrane proteins. The mRNAs encoding the 11- and 74/70-kd proteins extend from opposite sides of US into IRS/TRS, thus sharing a common 3' terminus. These proteins do not share a common carboxy terminus because the coding region for the 11-kd protein terminates at the junction between US and IRS, whereas that for the 74/70-kd protein extends into TRS. The analysis affirms the hypothesis that the extent of inverted repeats in herpesvirus genomes is primarily a result of constraints imposed by adjacent protein coding sequences.