Virus-like particles produced by a recombinant baculovirus containing the HIV gag gene were examined by negative staining after delipidization. This technique demonstrated that the gag-protein shell consisted of radially arranged short rods which formed a network of ring-like structures. Similar structures were observed at the plasma membrane of infected cells which had been opened by wet-cleaving. Occasionally five or six subunits were observed forming a ring. These findings suggest that the gag-encoded precursor (pr55) is a rod-like molecule about 34 A in diameter and 85 A in length. A protein cylinder of such dimensions would have a molecular weight of 56K. The center-to-center distance of two neighboring rings formed by the rods was 66 +/- 8 A (N = 200) by direct measurements and 65 A as obtained from averaged images. This morphology and these dimensions indicate that the virus-like particles contain the gag precursor in the form of a near-spherical "fullerene-like" icosahedral shell. Our data indicate that the triangulation number of the rings equals 63. However, since one rod of pr55 is shared by two rings, the number of copies of the precursor will be 1890 as opposed to 2522 if the molecules were closely packed. The particle diameter of 102 nm deduced from the proposed model was close to the diameter obtained from thin sections of low-temperature-embedded specimens (103-108 nm).