We have assembled derivatives of Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) that include 71 kbp of noncontiguous DNA sequences cloned into a prokaryotic F-factor plasmid. These mini-EBVs, when introduced into an EBV-containing lymphoblastoid cell, can be packaged by the endogenous helper virus. One such mini-EBV was found to have a single C residue deleted from its EBNA3a open reading frame. When packaged, this mini-EBV initiates proliferation of infected primary human B lymphocytes only in conjunction with a complementing helper virus. Proliferation of the infected cells, however, was maintained either alone by the mini-EBV containing the mutated EBNA3a open reading frame or alone by its derivative in which the EBNA3a open reading frame had been healed of its lesion by recombination with the helper virus. The mini-EBV with a wild-type EBNA3a open reading frame when packaged alone can both initiate and maintain proliferation upon infection of primary human B lymphocytes. These findings identify 41% of EBV DNA which is sufficient to immortalize primary human B lymphocytes and provide an assay to distinguish virus contributions to initiation or maintenance of cell proliferation or both. They also identify EBNA3a as a transforming gene, which contributes primarily to the initiation of cell proliferation.