Appropriate RNAs are transcribed and amplified and proteins are expressed after transfection into cells of in vitro-reconstituted RNA-protein complexes and infection with influenza virus as the helper. This system permits us to study the signals involved in transcription of influenza virus RNAs. For the analysis we used a plasmid-derived RNA containing the reporter gene for chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (CAT) flanked by the noncoding sequences of the NS RNA segment of influenza A/WSN/33 virus. Mutations were then introduced into both the 5' and 3' ends, and the resulting RNAs were studied to determine their transcription in vitro and their CAT expression activity in the RNA-protein transfection system. The results reveal that a stretch of uninterrupted uridines at the 5' end of the negative-strand RNA is essential for mRNA synthesis. Also, a double-stranded RNA ''panhandle'' structure generated by the 5'- and 3'-terminal nucleotides appears to be required for polyadenylation, since opening up of these base pairs diminished mRNA synthesis and eliminated expression of CAT activity by the mutant RNAs. Finally, it was shown that this double-stranded RNA structural requirement is not sequence specific, since a synthetic GC clamp can replace the virus-coded RNA duplex. The data suggest that the viral RNA polymerase adds poly(A) by a slippage (stuttering) mechanism which occurs when it hits the double-stranded RNA barrier next to the stretch of uridines.