The Rous sarcoma virus (RSV) leader RNA has three short open reading frames (ORF1 to ORF3) which are conserved in all avian sarcoma-leukosis retroviruses. Effects on virus propagation were determined following three types of alterations in the ORFs: (i) replacement of AUG initiation codons in order to prohibit ORF translation, (ii) alterations of the codon context around the AUG initiation codon to enhance translation of the normally silent ORF3, and (iii) elongation of the ORF coding sequences. Mutagenesis of the AUG codons for ORF1 and ORF2 (AUG1 and AUG2) singly or together delayed the onset of viral replication and cell transformation. In contrast, mutagenesis of AUG3 almost completely suppressed these viral activities. Mutagenesis of ORF3 to enhance its translation inhibited viral propagation. When the mutant ORF3 included an additional frameshift mutation which extended the ORF beyond the initiation site for the gag, gag-pol, and env proteins, host cells were initially transformed but died soon thereafter. Elongation of ORF1 from 7 to 62 codons led to the accumulation of transformation-defective virus with a delayed onset of replication. In contrast, viruses with elongation of ORF1 from 7 to 30 codons, ORF2 from 16 to 48 codons, or ORF3 from 9 to 64 codons, without any alterations in the AUG context, exhibited wild-type phenotypes. These results are consistent with a model that translation of the ORFs is necessary to facilitate virus production.