Novel suppressor variants of conditionally lethal HSV-1 gamma34.5 deletion mutants have been isolated which exhibit restored ability to grow on neoplastic neuronal cells. Deletion of the viral gamma34.5 genes, whose products share functional similarity with the cellular GADD34 gene, renders the virus non-neurovirulent and imposes a block to viral replication in neuronal cells. Protein synthesis ceases at late times post-infection and the translation initiation factor eIF2alpha is phosphorylated by the cellular PKR kinase [Chou et al. (1990) Science, 252, 1262-1266; (1995) Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA, 92, 10516-10520]. The suppressor mutants have overcome the translational block imposed by PKR. Multiple, independent isolates all contain rearrangements within a 595 bp element in the HSV-1 genome where the unique short component joins the terminal repeats. This alteration, which affects the production of the viral mRNA and protein from the Us11 and Us12 genes, is both necessary and sufficient to confer the suppressor phenotype on gamma34.5 mutant viruses. HSV-1 thus encodes a specific element which inhibits ongoing protein synthesis in the absence of the viral GADD34-like function. Since this inhibition involves the accumulation of phosphorylated eIF2alpha, the element identified by the suppressor mutations may be a discrete PKR activator. Activation of the PKR kinase thus does not proceed through a general, cellular 'antiviral' sensing mechanism. Instead, the virus deliberately activates PKR and encodes a separate function which selectively prevents the phosphorylation of at least one PKR target, eIF2alpha. The nature of this potential activator element, and how analogous cellular elements could affect PKR pathways which affect growth arrest and differentiation are discussed.