Bacteriophage with double-stranded, linear DNA genomes package DNA into pre-assembled icosahedral procapsids through a unique vertex. The packaging vertex contains an oligomeric ring of a portal protein that serves as a recognition site for the packaging enzymes, a conduit for DNA translocation, and the site of tail attachment. Previous studies have suggested that the portal protein of bacteriophage P22 is not essential for shell assembly; however, when assembled in the absence of functional portal protein, the assembled heads are not active in vitro packaging assays. In terms of head assembly, this raises an interesting question: how are portal vertices defined during morphogenesis if their incorporation is not a requirement for head assembly? To address this, the P22 portal gene was cloned into an inducible expression vector and transformed into the P22 host Salmonella typhimurium to allow control of the dosage of portal protein during infections. Using pulse-chase radiolabeling, it was determined that the portal protein is recruited into virion during head assembly. Surprisingly, over-expression of the portal protein during wild-type P22 infection caused a dramatic reduction in the yield of infectious virus. The cause of this reduction was traced to two potentially related phenomena. First, excess portal protein caused aberrant head assembly resulting in the formation of T = 7 procapsid-like particles (PLPs) with twice the normal amount of portal protein. Second, maturation of the PLPs was blocked during DNA packaging resulting in the accumulation of empty PLPs within the host. In addition to PLPs with normal morphology, smaller heads (apparently T = 4) and aberrant spirals were also produced. Interestingly, maturation of the small heads was relatively efficient resulting in the formation of small mature particles that were tailed and contained a head full of DNA. These data suggest that incorporation of portal vertices into heads occurs during growth of the coat lattice at decision points that dictate head assembly fidelity. © 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd.