Modified vaccinia virus Ankara (MVA) is a highly attenuated virus strain being developed as a vaccine for delivery of viral and recombinant antigens. The MVA genome lacks functional copies of numerous genes interfering with host response to infection. The interferon resistance gene E3L encodes one important viral immune defense factor still made by MVA. Here we demonstrate an essential role of E3L to allow for completion of the MVA molecular life cycle upon infection of human HeLa cells. A deletion mutant virus, MVA-DeltaE3L, was found defective in late protein synthesis, viral late transcription, and viral DNA replication in infected HeLa cells. Moreover, we detected viral early and continuing intermediate transcription associated with degradation of rRNA, indicating rapid activation of 2'-5'-oligoadenylate synthetase/RNase L in the absence of E3L. Further molecular monitoring of E3L function by microarray analysis of host cell transcription in MVA- or MVA-DeltaE3L-infected HeLa cells revealed an overall significant down regulation of more than 50% of cellular transcripts expressed under mock conditions already at 5 h after infection, with a more prominent shutoff following MVA-DeltaE3L infection. Interestingly, a cluster of genes up regulated exclusively in MVA-DeltaE3L-infected cells could be identified, including transcripts for interleukin 6, growth arrest and DNA damage-inducible protein beta, and dual-specificity protein phosphatases. Our data indicate that lack of E3L inhibits MVA antigen production in human HeLa cells at the level of viral late gene expression and suggest that E3L can prevent activation of additional host factors possibly affecting the MVA molecular life cycle.