The virion host shutoff (vhs) function of herpes simplex virus (HSV) limits the expression of genes in the infected cells by destabilizing both host and viral mRNAs. vhs function mutants have been isolated which are defective in their ability to degrade host mRNA. Furthermore, the half-life of viral mRNAs is significantly longer in cells infected with the vhs-1 mutant virus than in cells infected with the wild-type (wt) virus. Recent data have shown that the vhs-1 mutation resides within the open reading frame UL41. We have analyzed the shutoff of host protein synthesis in cells infected with a mixture of the wt HSV-1 (KOS) and the vhs-1 mutant virus. The results of these experiments revealed that (i) the wt virus shutoff activity requires a threshold level of input virions per cell and (ii) the mutant vhs-1 virus protein can irreversibly block the wt virus shutoff activity. These results are consistent with a stoichiometric model in which the wt vhs protein interacts with a cellular factor which controls the half-life of cell mRNA. This wt virus interaction results in the destabilization of both host and viral mRNAs. In contrast, the mutant vhs function interacts with the cellular factor irreversibly, resulting in the increased half-life of both host and viral mRNAs.