We have investigated the structure and the expression of transcripts of the HSV-1 strain 17 DNA polymerase gene (pol) by various mapping methods including cDNA cloning. The majority of mature pol transcripts is strictly colinear with the pol gene. But additionally, pol cDNAs show a defined heterogeneity in respect to their 5'-terminal regions and can be divided into four classes with characteristic differences; (i) class 1 represents the major transcript (pol-R1) with initiation at HSV-1 positions 62,605-62,610, (ii) class 2 initiates about 70 bp downstream, (iii) class 3 is generated by splicing the short open reading frame (SORF) to a 5'-truncated part of the long open reading frame (LORF) which results in a partially different coding potential, and (iv) class 4 starts 120 bp upstream of the major initiation site in the central part of the origin of replication (oriL). S1 and Exo VII nuclease and RNase protection assays as well as primer extension analyses confirm the classification regarding the genuine structure of pol mRNAs and the differential usage of transcriptional start sites. Furthermore, the transcript classes can be distinguished from each other by their kinetics of appearance/disappearance in the cytoplasm: The first transcription of the pol gene is indicated by the predominant presence of class 2 and class 4 mRNAs at 2 hr postinfection (h.p.i.), followed by an increase of class 1 transcripts up to 4 h.p.i. and a parallel decrease of class 2 mRNAs. These data suggest that expression of the pol gene is finely regulated already at the transcriptional and/or posttranscriptional level prior to the translation of pol mRNAs.