We have identified the gene for a major component of the prohead core of bacteriophage T4, the 17K protein. The gene, which we call gene 68, lies between genes 67 and 21 in the major cluster of T4 head genes. All of the genes in this region of the T4 genome have overlapping initiation and termination codons with the sequence T-A-A-T-G. We present the DNA sequence of the gene and show that it codes for a protein containing 141 amino acids with an acidic amino-terminal half and a basic carboxyl terminus. Antibodies prepared against the 17K protein were used to show that it is cleaved by the phage-coded gp21 protease during head maturation and that most of the protein leaves the head after cleavage. A frameshift mutation of the gene was constructed in vitro and recombined back into the phage genome. The mutated phages had a drastically reduced burst size and about half of the particles produced were morphologically abnormal, having isometric rather than prolate heads. Thus, the 17K protein is involved in head shape determination but is only semi-essential for T4 growth.