Contrary to a previous report, electron microscopic studies on the Fny strain of cucumber mosaic virus (CMV)-infected tobacco tissues revealed that plasmodesmata were not structurally modified during CMV infection, nor were virions ever observed in plasmodesmata connecting infected cells. To further explore the basis of CMV infection, experiments were performed on the CMV 3a ORF. The 3a protein of CMV was expressed in and purified from Escherichia coli. The purified protein was labeled with fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC) and subsequently microinjected into mesophyll cells of mature leaves of Nicotiana tabacum cv. Turkish Samsun NN. Within a brief period (as little as 1 sec), the microinjected FITC-labeled CMV 3a protein moved into neighboring cells. Co-injection of unlabeled CMV 3a protein with 9.4-kDa fluorescein-conjugated dextran (F-dextran) resulted in extensive cell-to-cell movement (diffusion) of the F-dextran, indicating that the 3a protein can interact with and dilate plasmodesmata. Furthermore, co-injection of unlabeled 3a protein with fluorescently labeled infectious CMV RNA molecules resulted in rapid and extensive cell-to-cell transport. In contrast, a mutant form of the 3a protein was unable to traffic from cell to cell, to increase the size exclusion limit of plasmodesmata, or to potentiate cell-to-cell trafficking of CMV RNA molecules. Microinjection studies performed on transgenic tobacco plants expressing the CMV 3a protein indicated that fluorescently labeled CMV RNA moved out of the target cell into the surrounding mesophyll tissue. In addition, expression of the CMV 3a protein also potentiated the cell-to-cell movement of 9.4-kDa F-dextran. Collectively, these results provide direct experimental evidence that the CMV 3a protein functions as the movement protein of CMV. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that CMV moves from cell-to-cell in the form of a ribonucleoprotein complex.