Synthesis of Rous sarcoma virus RNA was examined in vitro with a new assay for radioactive virus-specific RNA. Nuclei from infected and uninfected cells were incubated with ribonucleoside [alpha-(32)P]triphosphates, Mn(++), Mg(++) and (NH(4))(2)SO(4). Incorporation into total and viral RNA proceeded with similar kinetics for up to 25 min at 37 degrees . About 0.5% of the RNA synthesized by the infected system was scored as virus-specific, compared to 0.03% of the RNA from the uninfected system and 0.005% of the RNA synthesized by monkey kidney cell nuclei. Preincubation with DNase or actinomycin D completely suppressed total and virus-specific RNA synthesis. alpha-Amanitin, a specific inhibitor of eukaryotic RNA polymerase II, completely inhibited virus-specific RNA synthesis, while reducing total RNA synthesis by only 50%. We conclude that tumor virus-specific RNA is synthesized on a DNA template, most probably by the host's RNA polymerase II.