The herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) latency-associated transcripts (LATs) accumulate in neuronal nuclei of latently infected ganglia. Explant reactivation kinetics of LAT deletion mutants in the mouse eye model have suggested a role for the LATs in the reactivation process. This report describes the construction and characterization of an HSV-1 strain HFEM mutant, TB1, disrupted within both copies of the LAT gene. TB1 contains a 440-base-pair segment of bacteriophage lambda DNA in place of a 168-base-pair deletion within the transcribed portion of the LAT gene. The 2.0-kilobase LAT was not produced after infection of tissue culture cells with TB1, but a 0.7- to 0.8-kilobase RNA was expressed. TB1 did establish latent infection after corneal inoculation as efficiently as the parental virus, and its reactivation kinetics from explanted ganglia were similar to those of HFEM. During latent infection with TB1, HSV-1 transcripts were not detectable. Rescuant virus (TB1-R) contained intact LAT genes, synthesized full-length LAT transcripts during productive infection in tissue culture, and reactivated from ganglionic explants of latently infected mice with normal kinetics. Thus, any function these transcripts have in the reactivation process appears to include the region between the putative LAT promoter and the disruption in TB1 - a region of approximately 1,600 nucleotides, 800 of which encode the LATs.