In vitro packaging of restriction fragments of the bacteriophage φ29 DNA-gp3 (DNAgene product 3 complex) in the defined system was dependent on prohead RNA. Truncated prohead RNAs were obtained by in situ RNase A digestion, isolated and sequenced. Proheads having the intact 174 base RNA were compared to proheads having RNAs of 120, 95, 71, 69 or 54 bases for the capacity to package the DNAgp3 left and right ends and internal (non-end) fragments generated by the restriction enzymes EcoRI, HpaI and BstNI. Proheads with the 174 or 120 base RNAs packaged both left and right ends; internal fragments were packaged more efficiently by proheads with the 120 base RNA. Proheads with the 95 base RNA packaged DNAgp3 left ends and internal fragments efficiently, but lost the capacity to package right ends. Only internal fragments were packaged by proheads with the 71 base RNA, and proheads having 69 or 54 base RNAs were inactive. RNA-free proheads were effectively reconstituted with purified 174 and 120 base RNAs to produce particles similar in biological activity to the proheads from which the RNAs were isolated. The 95 base RNA was the smallest RNA of the group that could reconstitute the prohead and direct fragment packaging, although packaging was inefficient. Alteration of the specificity of DNA fragment packaging with truncated prohead RNAs has delineated RNA domains that function in DNAgp3 recognition and prohead binding.