Simian varicella virus (SVV) is closely related to varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the causative agent of chickenpox and shingles. The SVV and VZV gene 61 polypeptides are homologs of the HSV-1 ICP0, a viral transactivator which appears to play a role in viral latency and reactivation. In this study, the molecular properties of the SVV 61 were characterized. The SVV open reading frame (ORF) 61 encodes a 54.1-kDa polypeptide with 37% amino acid identity to the VZV 61. Homology to the HSV-1 ICP-0 is limited to a conserved RING finger motif at the amino terminus of the protein. A nuclear localization sequence (nls) at the carboxy-terminus directs the SVV 61 to the cell nucleus, while a SVV 61nls(-) mutant is confined to the cell cytoplasm. The SVV 61 transactivates its own promoter as well as SVV immediate early (IE, ORF 62), early (ORFs 28 and 29), and late (ORF 68) gene promoters in transfected Vero cells. The RING finger and nls motifs are required for efficient SVV 61 transactivation. The SVV 61 has no effect on the ability of the major SVV transactivator (IE62) to induce SVV promoters. Generation and propagation of a SVV gene 61 deletion mutant demonstrated that the SVV 61 is non-essential for in vitro replication. SVV gene 61 is expressed in liver, lung, and neural ganglia of infected monkeys during acute simian varicella.