Using bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC) technology, we have constructed and characterized a human cytomegalovirus recombinant virus with a mutation in the exon specific for the major immediate-early region 2 (IE2) gene product. The resulting IE2 86-kDa protein (IE2 86) has an internal deletion of amino acids 136 to 290 and is fused at the carboxy terminus to enhanced green fluorescent protein (EGFP). The deletion also removes the promoter and initiator methionine for the p40 form of IE2 and initiator methionine for the p60 form of the protein, and therefore, these late gene products are not produced. The mutant virus IE2 86ΔSX-EGFP is viable but exhibits altered growth characteristics in tissue culture compared with a full-length wild-type (wt) IE2 86-EGFP virus or a revertant virus. When cells are infected with the mutant virus at a low multiplicity of infection (MOI), there is a marked delay in the production of infectious virus. This is associated with slower cell-to-cell spread of the virus. By immunofluorescence and Western blot analyses, we show that the early steps in the replication of the mutant virus are comparable to those for the wt. Although there is significantly less IE2 protein in the cells infected with the mutant, there is only a modest lag in the initial accumulation of IE1 72 and viral early proteins, and viral DNA replication proceeds normally. The mutation also has only a small effect on the synthesis of the viral major capsid protein. The most notable molecular defect in the mutant virus infection is that the steady-state levels of the pp65 (UL83) and pp28 (UL99) matrix proteins are greatly reduced. In the case of UL83, but not UL99, there is also a corresponding decrease in the amount of mRNA present in cells infected with the mutant virus.