Computer-generated thermodynamic predictions and solution structure probing indicated two stem-loop structures, stem-loop 1 (SL1; nt 32-106) and stem-loop 2 (SL2; nt 143-183), within the 5' 230 nt of potato virus X (PVX) RNA. Because the existence of SL1 was further supported by covariation analysis of several PVX strains, the functional significance of this structure was investigated by site-directed mutational analysis in a tobacco protoplast system. In general, mutations that reduced genomic plus-strand RNA accumulation similarly affected coat protein accumulation, indicating that subgenomic plus-strand RNA was also affected. In contrast, minus-strand RNA levels remained relatively unchanged. Mutational analysis of the stem C (SC) region of SL1 indicated that pairing was more important than sequence, which was consistent with the covariation analysis. Alterations that increased length and stability of either SC or stem D (SD) were deleterious to plus-strand RNA accumulation. The formation of internal loop C between SC and SD, as well as specific nucleotides within this loop, were also required. Several modifications were made to the terminal GAAA tetraloop, a motif known for enhanced RNA stability. Both GANA and GAAG motifs resulted in wild-type levels of RNA accumulation. However, a UUCG tetraloop was detrimental, indicating that the sequence of this element was important beyond just providing stabilization of the structure. These data indicate that multiple features of SL1 are critical for accumulation of PVX plus-strand RNA.