The effect of vaccinia virus early transcripts on cellular (globin, HeLa, Chinese hamster ovary) and viral (vaccinia, encephalomyocarditis) mRNA function was studied in reticulocyte and wheat germ cell-free protein-synthesizing systems. Vaccinia virus transcripts of two size classes (8-10 S and 4-7 S), generated in vitro by viral cores, inhibited function of cellular and encephalomyocarditis virus mRNA but not that of vaccinia virus in reticulocyte lysate systems. Mild alkaline hydrolysis or micrococcal nuclease treatment of vaccinia virus in vitro transcripts resulted in a loss of their ability to inhibit protein synthesis directed by HeLa cell RNA. Vaccinia virus in vitro transcripts also selectively inhibited HeLa cell protein synthesis in wheat germ systems, suggesting that double-stranded RNA is not involved in this inhibition of protein synthesis. The addition, to the reticulocyte translating system, of cytoplasmic RNA obtained from infected cells in conjunction with cellular mRNA (globin, HeLa) resulted in the inhibition of synthesis of the globin or HeLa polypeptides with little or no effect on the translation of the vaccinia virus proteins. RNA extracted from vaccinia virions inhibited cellular but not vaccinia virus mRNA function when added to the reticulocyte lysate systems with uninfected or infected HeLa cell cytoplasmic RNA.