Autoprocessing of the precursor form of human herpesvirus 6 (HHV-6) proteinase at two sites (termed M and R) is required to generate the mature enzyme. Kinetic constants were determined for the hydrolysis of a series of synthetic peptide substrates by mature HHV-6 proteinase, purified to homogeneity. Truncation or replacement of individual residues in peptides mimicking the R-site sequence, indicated that the minimum length for effective hydrolysis by the viral enzyme was P4-P3-P2-Ala*Ser-P2'-P3'-P4' and revealed the importance of the P1 Ala and P4 Tyr residues. Consequently, relevant (P1 or P4) mutations were introduced into the precursor form of the proteinase and the ability of these altered proteins to autoprocess was examined. Introduction of Val in place of the P1 Ala at the M-site essentially abrogated cleavage but mature HHV-6 proteinase was still generated by cleavage at the R-site, indicating that processing of the M-site is not a prerequisite for cleavage of the R-site in the precursor. At the R-site, mutation of the P1 Ala, or of the preceding P4 Tyr residue, prevented processing at the R-site in the precursor so that the mature form of HHV-6 proteinase was not generated. The accumulated data suggest a possible new approach to the design of inhibitors for therapeutic intervention in the life cycle of herpesviruses.