A genomic clone of the small, round-structured virus Southampton virus (SV) was constructed from a set of overlapping PCR amplicons. Sequence analysis confirmed the absence of mutations and accurate ligation of the PCR products. The SV cDNA was cloned into a vector for in vitro production of RNA and subsequent translation by rabbit reticulocyte lysate. Two polypeptides corresponding to the N-terminal and C-terminal regions of the viral polyprotein were expressed in Escherichia coli and used to produce murine antisera for detection of translation products. Three major translation products of 113, 48, and 41 kDa were identified in a coupled transcription-translation system. The large 113-kDa protein reacted with antisera raised against the C-terminal region of the polyprotein and represents a precursor of the viral RNA polymerase. The 48-kDa protein detected in vitro reacted specifically with antisera raised against the polyprotein N terminus, showing that translation was initiated in SV at the three tandem in-frame AUG codons at the 5' end of the genome. A series of nested 3' deletions of the large open reading frame encoding the viral polyprotein was used to define the translation initiation site and genomic location of the viral protease. The results are consistent with a model in which translation of the viral genome is initiated at one of the three in-frame AUG codons starting at nucleotide position 5 and in which active viral protease is produced following translation of a region located between NheI (nucleotide 3052) and SphI (nucleotide 4056), resulting in rapid cleavage of a large precursor protein. Abolition of the viral 3C-like protease activity by site-directed mutagenesis of the putative active-site cysteine (Cys-1238) resulted in production of a large protein of approximately 200 kDa which reacted with both N-terminal and C-terminal antisera. Two potential polyprotein cleavage sites containing the preferred picornaviral QG recognition site were identified on either side of the putative 2C-like helicase region of the polyprotein. Proteolysis at these positions would give rise to products with relative molecular masses identical to those of the products detected in the rabbit reticulocyte system. Site-directed mutagenesis was used to introduce a single base change which resulted in the substitution of glutamine residues with proline residues at amino acids 399 and 762. These mutations completely abolished cleavage of the polyprotein at these positions and gave rise to alternative products with molecular masses which matched the predicted sizes for a single cleavage at either Q-399 or Q-762. These data indicate that the small, round-structured virus Southampton virus produces a 3C-like protease which has two primary cleavage sites at positions 399 and 762. Proteolytic cleavage at these positions releases the putative viral 2C-like helicase.