The Armstrong CA 1371 (ARM) and WE strains of lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) differ in the ability to produce disease in adult guinea pigs. Infection with the ARM strain is not lethal, even at high virus doses (greater than 10,000 PFU), whereas the WE strain causes 100% mortality even at low doses (less than 10 PFU). To determine the genetic basis of this virulence, intertypic reassortants were made between the ARM and WE strains of LCMV. The two reassortants with the genotypes WE/ARM (L segment of WE and S segment of ARM) and ARM/WE (L segment of ARM and S segment of WE) were tested for their pathogenicity in guinea pigs. The ARM/WE reassortant was avirulent like the ARM/ARM parental strain. Minimal viral replication was observed in organs of guinea pigs inoculated with 10(2) or 10(5) PFU of ARM/ARM or ARM/WE, and all animals survived. In contrast, the WE/ARM reassortant was highly virulent like the WE/WE parental strain and killed all of the infected animals. High levels of viral replication were observed in guinea pigs infected with the latter two strains. In contrast to these in vivo observations, both the parental strains and the ARM/WE or WE/ARM reassortants had similar growth potential in cultured guinea pig fibroblasts. Thus, the L RNA segment of LCMV WE is important for viral replication in vivo and is associated with fatal acute disease after infection of adult guinea pigs.