Sindbis virus is a positive strand RNA virus that has provided a valuable model for studying virus structure and replication. It is also being developed as a vector for the expression of heterologous proteins. Many studies with this virus are carried out in cultured BHK cells where infection is usually highly cytopathic and within 1 or 2 days after infection all of the cells are dead. Weiss et al. had established a persistently infected culture of BHK cells by infecting the cells with a virus preparation highly enriched in defective interfering (DI) particles and had isolated an attenuated virus, SIN-1 virus, from the culture [Weiss et al. (1980) J. Virol. 33, 463-474]. SIN-1 virus, free of DI particles, was able to establish a persistent infection in BHK cells. We initiated studies to determine what changes in the genome of the virus were responsible for this phenotype. We describe here the cDNA cloning and sequencing of the 5' terminus and the four nonstructural protein genes from SIN-1 virus. A single coding mutation in the nsP2 gene (a predicted change of Pro-726 --> Ser) produced a virus that was able to establish persistent infection in BHK cells. Additional mutations in the other genes were required to decrease the synthesis of viral RNA to a level similar to that found in cells infected with SIN-1 virus. Incorporation of the nsP2 mutation into a Sindbis virus expression vector led to a higher level of synthesis of the reporter protein, beta-galactosidase, than that obtained with the original Sindbis virus replicon.