A lysozyme-detergent procedure was developed for isolation of tau-particles from cells infected by gene-21 mutants of T4 bacteriophage. These particles have a sedimentation coefficient of 440 +/- 10 S. They contain less than 1% detectable nuclease-resistant DNA, are smaller (650 x 850 A) than normal bacteriophage heads (800 x 1100 A), and exhibit two major bands on 7.5% Na dodecyl sulfate-acrylamide gels. The more prominent band (55,000 daltons) corresponds to the uncleaved, major capsid polypeptide (P23); the other band (32,000 daltons) corresponds to the gene-22 product (P22). Temperature-shift experiments with cells infected with tsN8 (gene 21) mutants were used to study the fate of tau-particles accumulated under nonpermissive conditions. 50 Min after ts N8-infected cells were shifted from the nonpermissive (41.5 degrees ) to the permissive (25 degrees ) temperature, a phage burst occurred that was 75% of that observed with wild-type phage. However, in "pulse-chase" temperature-shift experiments, the radioactive tau-particle peak only slightly decreased (by 10-14%) by 50 min after the shift, whereas an increased amount of radioactivity (about four times as much as the tau-particle decrease) appeared in phage particles. The results suggest that at least two pools of head polypeptides coexist in cells infected with gene-21 mutants. One pool is composed of head subunits assembled into tau-particles, which are mostly aberrant structures; the second pool is composed of head subunits that are incorporated into mature phage when the gene-21 product becomes functional.