Structure-function studies with mammalian reoviruses have been limited by the lack of a reverse-genetic system for engineering mutations into the viral genome. To circumvent this limitation in a partial way for the major outer-capsid protein sigma3, we obtained in vitro assembly of large numbers of virion-like particles by binding baculovirus-expressed sigma3 protein to infectious subvirion particles (ISVPs) that lack sigma3. A level of sigma3 binding approaching 100% of that in native virions was routinely achieved. The sigma3 coat in these recoated ISVPs (rcISVPs) appeared very similar to that in virions by electron microscopy and three-dimensional image reconstruction. rcISVPs retained full infectivity in murine L cells, allowing their use to study sigma3 functions in virus entry. Upon infection, rcISVPs behaved identically to virions in showing an extended lag phase prior to exponential growth and in being inhibited from entering cells by either the weak base NH4Cl or the cysteine proteinase inhibitor E-64. rcISVPs also mimicked virions in being incapable of in vitro activation to mediate lysis of erythrocytes and transcription of the viral mRNAs. Last, rcISVPs behaved like virions in showing minor loss of infectivity at 52 degrees C. Since rcISVPs contain virion-like levels of sigma3 but contain outer-capsid protein mu1/mu1C mostly cleaved at the delta-phi junction as in ISVPs, the fact that rcISVPs behaved like virions (and not ISVPs) in all of the assays that we performed suggests that sigma3, and not the delta-phi cleavage of mu1/mu1C, determines the observed differences in behavior between virions and ISVPs. To demonstrate the applicability of rcISVPs for genetic studies of protein functions in reovirus entry (an approach that we call recoating genetics), we used chimeric sigma3 proteins to localize the primary determinants of a strain-dependent difference in sigma3 cleavage rate to a carboxy-terminal region of the ISVP-bound protein.