The capsid protein (CP) of alfalfa mosaic virus (AIMV) is required for viral replication when susceptible plants are inoculated with purified viral genomic RNA. The discovery of AIMV CP in the zinc activated RNA-dependent RNA polymerase complex prompted our further investigation of AIMV virions and the potential involvement of AIMV CP in metal binding. AIMV CP, isolated from nucleoprotein components, fractionated into four distinct ionic species when purified by cation exchange fast protein liquid chromatography. The CP existed as zinc complexed homodimers, metal-free homodimers, and two forms of proteolyzed heterodimers, as analyzed by sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis, gel filtration chromatography, amino-terminal sequencing, and atomic absorption spectroscopy. Although the relative amounts of proteolyzed heterodimers varied, the ratio of zinc complexed homodimers to metal-free homodimers (1:10) was constant between virus and protein isolations for the strains 425 and WISC14. Purified metal-free and zinc-complexed homodimers could be interconverted in vitro by incubation with zinc chloride or with the metal chelator, sodium diethyldithiocarbamate (NaDDC). The potential role of zinc in AIMV nucleoprotein structure and infectivity was investigated by treatment of the virions with NaDDC. Electron microscopy and sucrose density gradient studies failed to detect any gross structural changes for zinc depleted virus; however, a decrease in infectivity was observed with local lesion leaf assays, suggesting a functional role for zinc in viral replication.