Human cytomegalovirus down-regulates cell surface class I major histocompatibility (MHC) molecules, thus allowing the virus to proliferate while avoiding detection by CD8+ T lymphocytes. The unique short gene product US2 is a 199-amino acid type I endoplasmic reticulum glycoprotein that modulates surface expression of class I MHC products by targeting class I heavy chains for dislocation from the endoplasmic reticulum to the cytosol, where they undergo proteasomal degradation. Although the mechanism by which this viral protein targets class I heavy chains for destruction remains unclear, the putative US2 cytoplasmic tail comprised of only 14 residues is known to play a functional role. To determine the specific residues critical for mediating class I degradation, a mutagenesis analysis of the cytoplasmic tail of US2 was performed. Using truncation mutants, the removal of only 4 residues (mutant US2(195)) from the US2 carboxyl terminus completely abolishes class I destruction. Furthermore, site-directed mutagenesis of the US2 cytoplasmic tail revealed that the most critical residues for class I-induced destruction, cysteine 187, serine 190, tryptophan 193, and phenylalanine 196, occurs every third residue. This experimental data supports a model that the US2 cytoplasmic tail is in a 3(10) helical configuration. Such a secondary structure would predict that one side of the 3(10) helical cytoplasmic tail would interact with the extraction apparatus to facilitate the dislocation and subsequent destruction of class I heavy chains.