We have constructed a full-length cDNA clone of the virulent T48 strain of Ross River virus, a member of the alphavirus genus. Infectious RNA can be transcribed from this clone using SP6 or T7 RNA polymerase. The rescued virus has properties indistinguishable from those of the T48 strain of Ross River virus. We have used this clone, together with a full-length cDNA clone of Sindbis virus, to construct chimeric plasmids in which the 5' and the 3' nontranslated regions of the Sindbis and Ross River genomes were exchanged. The nontranslated regions of the two viral genomes differ in both size and sequence although they maintain specific conserved sequence elements. Virus was recovered from all four chimeras. Chimeras containing heterologous 3' nontranslated regions had replicative efficiencies equal to those of the parents. In contrast, the chimeras containing heterologous 5' nontranslated regions were defective in RNA synthesis and virus production, and the severity of the defect was dependent upon the host. Replication of a virus containing a heterologous 5' nontranslated region may be inefficient due to the formation of defective protein-RNA complexes, whereas, the presumptive complexes formed between host or virus proteins and the 3' nontranslated region to promote RNA synthesis appear to function normally in the chimeras.