Little is known about virus-host cell interactions that regulate the lytic potential of viruses during productive replication. Sindbis virus (SV), a single-stranded positive-sense RNA virus in the alphavirus genus (family Togaviridae), results in lytic infection in most vertebrate cell lines, but persistent productive infection in post-mitotic neurons. The cellular oncogene bcl-2, which encodes an inner mitochondrial membrane protein of M(r) 26,000 (ref. 2), blocks programmed cell death (apoptosis) in neurons. We therefore investigated whether SV infection induces programmed cell death in non-neuronal cells, and if so, whether virus-induced programmed cell death can be blocked by transfection with bcl-2. We demonstrate that SV infection of baby hamster kidney (BHK-2), mouse neuroblastoma (N18), and rat prostatic adenocarcinoma (AT-3) cells results in programmed cell death, whereas SV infection of bcl-2-transfected AT-3 cells results in long-term persistent productive infection. Thus cellular bcl-2 oncogene expression plays a role in the establishment of persistent viral infection by blocking virus-induced programmed cell death.