A hallmark of poliovirus is the propensity to infect and replicate in spinal cord neurons of the central nervous system. Previously, we characterized a poliovirus self-replicating RNA genome (replicon), which encodes firefly luciferase in place of the capsid genes. This replicon is encapsidated into an authentic poliovirion by providing the poliovirus capsid protein in trans. The amount of enzymatically active luciferase in cells infected with this replicon correlated with the infectious dose. To begin to characterize the in vivo infectious potential of replicons, we have inoculated mice transgenic for the human receptor for poliovirus (PVR), either intracranially or intraspinally, with the replicon encoding luciferase. Wild-type poliovirus delivered to PVR mice via intracranial or intraspinal routes resulted in paralysis and death. Replicon preparations were shown by a sensitive biological assay to be free of infectious poliovirus. Neither intracranial nor intraspinal inoculation of the replicon encoding luciferase resulted in any obvious paralysis or disease symptoms. Following intraspinal inoculation with replicons encoding luciferase, luciferase enzyme activity was detected at 4 h post-inoculation, with peak activity at approximately 8 h post-inoculation; by 48-72 h, the luciferase activity had returned to background levels. Luciferase activity was detected in spinal cord predominantly near the site of inoculation, although activity was detected anterior and posterior to the site of inoculation, indicating that replicons undergo limited movement within the CNS presumably via the cerebrospinal fluid. In stark contrast to poliovirus though, inoculation of replicons into the spinal cords of PVR mice did not result in noticeable pathogenesis. Using immunofluorescence with antibodies to double-stain for replicons and neurons, we determined that replicons exclusively infect the neurons of the spinal cord, with the expression of the luciferase and replicon proteins confined to the cytoplasm of the infected cells. Replicons, then, possess the identical capacity for infection of spinal cord neurons in vivo as poliovirus. The lack of discernible neuronal destruction following replicon inoculation into the spinal cord suggests that some of the pathogenesis observed during a poliovirus infection might not be due entirely to primary infection of neurons. Finally, the results of this study point to future use of replicons as a means to target recombinant protein expression to neurons in the spinal cord.