The cis-acting genomic RNA requirements for the assembly of vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) ribonucleocapsids into infections particles were investigated. Using a biological assay based on particle infectivity, we demonstrated that subgenomic replicons that contained all four possible combinations of the natural genomic termini, the 3' leader (Le) and 5' trailer (Tr) regions, were replication competent; however, a 3' copyback replicon (3'CB), containing the natural 3' terminus but having the 5' Tr replaced by a sequence complementary to the 3' Le for 46 nucleotides, was unable to assemble infectious particles, despite efficient replication. When a copy of Tr was inserted 51 nucleotides from the 5' end of 3'CB, infectious particles were produced. However, analysis of the replication products of these particles showed that the 51 nucleotides which corresponded to the Le complement sequences at the 5' terminus were removed during RNA replication, thus restoring the wild-type 5' Tr to the exact 5' terminus. These data showed that a cis-acting signal was necessary for assembly of VSV RNAs into infectious particles and that this signal was supplied by Tr when located at the 5' end. The regions within Tr required for assembly were analyzed by a series of deletions and exchanges for Le complement sequences, which demonstrated that the 5' terminal 29 nucleotides of Tr allowed assembly of infectious particles but that the 5' terminal 22 nucleotides functioned poorly. Deletions in Tr also altered the balance between negative- and positive-strand genomic RNA and affected levels of replication. RNAs that retained fewer than 45 but at least 22 nucleotides of the 5' terminus could replicate but were impaired in RNA replication, and RNAs that retained only 14 nucleotides of the 5' terminus were severely reduced in ability to replicate. These data define the VSV Tr as a position-dependent, cis-acting element for the assembly of RNAs into infectious particles, and they delineate RNA sequences that are essential for negative-strand RNA synthesis. These observations are consistent with, and offer an explanation for, the absence of 3' copyback defective interfering particles in nature.