The coronavirus mouse hepatitis virus (MHV) translates its replicase gene (gene 1) into two co-amino-terminal polyproteins, polyprotein 1a and polyprotein 1ab. The gene 1 polyproteins are processed by viral proteinases to yield at least 15 mature products, including a putative RNA helicase from polyprotein 1ab that is presumed to be involved in viral RNA synthesis. Antibodies directed against polypeptides encoded by open reading frame 1b were used to characterize the expression and processing of the MHV helicase and to define the relationship of helicase to the viral nucleocapsid protein (N) and to sites of viral RNA synthesis in MHV-infected cells. The antihelicase antibodies detected a 67-kDa protein in MHV-infected cells that was translated and processed throughout the virus life cycle. Processing of the 67-kDa helicase from polyprotein 1ab was abolished by E64d, a known inhibitor of the MHV 3C-like proteinase. When infected cells were probed for helicase by immunofluorescence laser confocal microscopy, the protein was detected in patterns that varied from punctate perinuclear complexes to large structures that occupied much of the cell cytoplasm. Dual-labeling studies of infected cells for helicase and bromo-UTP-labeled RNA demonstrated that the vast majority of helicase-containing complexes were active in viral RNA synthesis. Dual-labeling studies for helicase and the MHV N protein showed that the two proteins almost completely colocalized, indicating that N was associated with the helicase-containing complexes. This study demonstrates that the putative RNA helicase is closely associated with MHV RNA synthesis and suggests that complexes containing helicase, N, and new viral RNA are the viral replication complexes.