Alphaviruses are regarded as attractive systems for expression of heterologous genes and development of recombinant vaccines. Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEE)-based vectors are particularly promising because of their specificity to lymphoid tissues and strong resistance to interferon. To improve understanding of the VEE genome packaging and optimize application of this virus as a vector, we analyzed in more detail the mechanism of packaging of the VEE-specific RNAs. The presence of the RNAs in the VEE particles during serial passaging in tissue culture was found to depend not only on the presence of packaging signal(s), but also on the ability of these RNAs to express in cis nsP1, nsP2 and nsP3 in the form of a P123 precursor. Packaging of VEE genomes into infectious virions was also found to be more efficient compared to that of Sindbis virus, in spite of lower levels of RNA replication and structural protein production. © 2005 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.