Purified retroviral Gag proteins can assemble in vitro to form immature virus-like particles (VLPs). By cryoelectron tomography, Rous sarcoma virus VLPs show an organized hexameric lattice consisting chiefly of the capsid (CA) domain, with periodic stalk-like densities below the lattice. We hypothesize that the structure represented by these densities is formed by amino acid residues immediately downstream of the folded CA, namely, the short spacer peptide SP, along with a dozen flanking residues. These 24 residues comprise the SP assembly (SPA) domain, and we propose that neighboring SPA units in a Gag hexamer coalesce to form a six-helix bundle. Using in vitro assembly, alanine scanning mutagenesis, and biophysical analyses, we have further characterized the structure and function of SPA. Most of the amino acid residues in SPA could not be mutated individually without abrogating assembly, with the exception of a few residues near the N and C termini, as well as three hydrophilic residues within SPA. We interpret these results to mean that the amino acids that do not tolerate mutations contribute to higher-order structures in VLPs. Hydrogen-deuterium exchange analyses of unassembled Gag compared that of assembled VLPs showed strong protection at the SPA region, consistent with a higher-order structure. Circular dichroism revealed that a 29mer SPA peptide shifts from a random coil to a helix in a concentration-dependent manner. Analytical ultracentrifugation showed concentration-dependent self-association of the peptide into a hexamer. Taken together, these results provide strong evidence for the formation of a critical six-helix bundle in Gag assembly. © 2014, American Society for Microbiology.