Influenza virus polymerase, which was prepared depleted of viral RNA, was used to copy small RNA templates prepared from plasmid-encoded sequences. Template constructions containing only the 3' end of genomic RNA were shown to be efficiently copied, indicating that the promoter lay solely within the 15-nucleotide 3' terminus. Sequences not specific for the influenza virus termini were not copied, and, surprisingly, RNAs containing termini identical to those from plus-sense cRNA were copied at low levels. The specificity for recognition of the virus sense promoter was further defined by site-specific mutagenesis. It was also found that increased levels of viral protein were required in order to catalyze both the cap endonuclease-primed and primer-free RNA synthesis from these model templates, as well as from genomic-length RNAs. This finding indicates that the reconstituted system has catalytic properties very similar to those of native viral ribonucleoprotein complexes.