Different tombusviruses were able to support the replication of either homologous or heterologous defective interfering (DI) RNAs, and those infected plants usually developed typical attenuated symptoms. However, in some helper virus-DI RNA combinations the inoculated plants were necrotized, although they contained a high level of DI RNA, suggesting that the accumulation of DI RNA and the resulting suppression of genomic RNA replication were not directly responsible for the symptom attenuation. Moreover, the 19-kDa protein product of ORF 5, which is known to play a crucial role in necrotic symptom development, accumulated at the same level in the infected plants in the presence of protective homologous DI RNA and in the presence of nonprotective heterologous DI RNA. It was also demonstrated, by chimeric helper viruses, that the ability of heterologous DI RNA to protect the virus-infected plants against systemic necrosis is determined by the 5'-proximal region of the helper virus genome. The results presented suggest that DI RNA-mediated protection did not operate via the specific inhibition of 19-kDa protein expression but, more likely, DI RNAs in protective DI-helper virus combinations specifically interacted with viral products, preventing the induction of necrotic symptoms.