The 5′ portion of the Sindbis virus (SIN) genome RNA is multifunctional. Besides initiating translation of the nonstructural polyprotein, RNA elements in the 5′ 200 bases of the SIN genome RNA, or its complement at the 3′ end of the negative-strand intermediate, play key roles in the synthesis of both negative- and positive-strand RNAs. We used here a combination of genetic and biochemical approaches to further dissect the functions of this sequence. Replacement of the SIN 5′ end in defective-interfering (DI) and genome RNAs with sequences from a distantly related alphavirus, Semliki Forest virus (SFV), resulted in nonviable chimeras. The addition of five nucleotides from the 5′ terminus of SIN restored negative-strand RNA synthesis in DI genomes but not their replication in vivo. Pseudorevertants of various SFV-SIN chimeras were isolated, and suppressor mutations were mapped to AU-rich sequences added to the 5′ end of the original SFV 5′ sequence or its "deleted" versions. Early pseudorevertants had heterogeneous 5′ termini that were inefficient for replication relative to the parental SIN 5′ sequence. In contrast, passaging of these pseudorevertant viral populations in BHK cells under competitive conditions yielded evolved, more homogeneous 5′-terminal sequences that were highly efficient for negative-strand synthesis and replication. These 5′-terminal sequences always began with 5′-AU, followed by one or more AU repeats or short stretches of oligo(A). Further analysis demonstrated a positive correlation between the number of repeat units and replication efficiency. Interestingly, some 5′ modifications restored high-level viral replication in BHK-21 cells, but these viruses were impaired for replication in the cells of mosquito origin. These studies provide new information on sequence determinants required for SIN RNA replication and suggest new strategies for restricting cell tropism and optimizing the packaging of alphavirus vectors.