Viruses have been subjected to intense study because of their medical importance and because they can provide fundamental insights into normal and pathological cellular processes. Indeed, much of our knowledge about basic cellular biology and biochemistry was acquired through the study of viruses, and some of medicine's greatest triumphs and challenges involve viruses. Since viruses have evolved to exploit important cell processes, they can provide tools and approaches to manipulate cell function. The small transmembrane E5 protein of bovine papillomavirus type 1 transforms cells by a unique mechanism involving ligand-independent activation of the platelet-derived growth factor beta receptor. Experiments summarized in this review suggest that it may be possible to use the E5 protein as a model to design an entirely new class of small, modular transmembrane proteins with novel biological activities.