These experiments evaluate the role of the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) nuclear antigen leader protein (EBNA-LP) in B-lymphocyte growth transformation by using a recombinant EBV molecular genetic approach. Recombinant viruses encoding for a mutant EBNA-LP lacking the carboxy-terminal 45 amino acids were markedly impaired in their ability to transform primary B lymphocytes compared with EBNA-LP wild-type but otherwise isogenic recombinant viruses. This impairment was particularly evident when primary B lymphocytes were infected under conditions of limiting virus dilution. The impairment could be partially corrected by growth of the infected lymphocytes with fibroblast feeder layers or by cocultivation of primary B lymphocytes with relatively highly permissive mutant virus-infected cells. One of the five mutant recombinants recovered by growth of infected cells on fibroblast feeder cultures was a partial revertant which had a normal transforming phenotype. Several lymphoblastoid cell lines infected with the EBNA-LP mutant recombinant viruses had a high percentage of cells with bright cytoplasmic immunoglobulin staining, as is characteristic of cells undergoing plasmacytoid differentiation. Expression of the other EBV latent or lytic proteins and viral replication were not affected by the EBNA-LP mutations. Thus, the EBNA-LP mutant phenotype is not mediated by an effect on expression of another EBV gene. These data are most compatible with the hypothesis that EBNA-LP affects expression of a B-lymphocyte gene which is a mediator of cell growth or differentiation.