To determine the mechanism for the delayed and inefficient replication of the picornavirus hepatitis A virus in cell culture, we studied the kinetics of synthesis and assembly of virus-specific proteins by metabolic labeling of infected BS-C-1 cells with L-[35S]methionine and L-[35S]cysteine. Sedimentation, electrophoresis, and autoradiography revealed the presence of virions, provirions, procapsids, and 14S (pentameric) subunits. Virions and provirions contained VP1, VP0, VP2, and VP3; procapsids contained VP1, VP0, and VP3; and pentamers contained PX, VP0, and VP3, as previously shown by immunoblotting (D.A. Anderson and B.C. Ross, J. Virol. 64:5284-5289, 1990). Under single-cycle growth conditions label was found in 14S subunits immediately after labeling from 15 to 18 h postinfection (p.i.); however, a proportion of labeled polyprotein was not cleaved and assembled into pentamers for a further 18 h. When analyzed at 72 h p.i., incorporation of label which flowed into virions was detected from 3 h p.i., with maximal uptake levels being observed from 12 to 15 h p.i. Viral antigen, infectious virus, and viral RNA were determined in parallel, with coincident peaks in these variables being observed 12 h after the period of maximum label uptake. It was also found that the lag between the synthesis of the viral polyprotein and assembly of viral particles was the same after labeling from either 12 to 15 or 27 to 30 h p.i. despite increased levels of viral RNA during this period, suggesting that factors additional to the level of RNA are involved in the restriction of viral replication. Sedimentation and immunoblot analysis revealed an additional protein of approximately 100 kDa containing both VP1- and VP2-reactive sequences and sedimenting slightly more slowly than 14S pentamers, which may represent intact P12A assembled into pentamers as has been reported for the P1 of some other picornaviruses (S. McGregor and R. R. Rueckert, J. Virol. 21:548-553, 1977). The results of this study suggest that cleavage of the hepatitis A virus polyprotein to produce pentamers is protracted (though not rate limiting) early in infection, while the assembly of pentamers into higher structures is a rapid process once sufficient viral RNA is produced for encapsidation.