The cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) 3a movement protein (MP) was compared directly to the well-characterized tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) 30K MP by cloning the genes encoding these proteins into Escherichia coli, isolating the E. coli-expressed MPs, and characterizing them with regard to RNA- and NTP-binding activities. The two MPs were shown to bind single-stranded RNA and DNA cooperatively, but with no sequence specificity. However, discrete lengths of CMV RNA 3 could be protected against RNase digestion by the CMV 3a protein, indicating that the RNA was not uniformly covered by the MP after cooperative binding. The TMV 30K:RNA complex was more stable in NaCl than the CMV 3a:RNA complex; about 50% of the corresponding complexes were stable in 0.6 and 0.4 M NaCl, respectively. Both MPs could bind GTP strongly and UTP weakly, but not ATP or CTP. The CMV 3a protein expressed either in E. coli or in planta from RNA 3 of CMV was tagged at its C-terminus with six histidine residues, which facilitated its purification by affinity chromatography on a matrix containing Ni(2+)-nitrilotriacetate. The soluble, His-tagged 3a proteins, affinity-purified from E. coli and zucchini squash, both were able bind CMV RNA 3 in vitro.