Following primary ocular infection, herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) establishes a lifelong latent infection in sensory neurons of the trigeminal ganglia. Latency-associated transcript (LAT), the only known viral gene abundantly transcribed during HSV-1 neuronal latency, is required for high levels of reactivation. Recently we showed that three different mutants that do not alter the LAT promoter but contain deletions within the 5' end of the primary LAT transcript affect viral virulence (G. C. Perng et al., J. Virol. 75:9018-9028, 2001). In contrast, in LAT-null mutants viral virulence appears unaltered (T. M. Block et al., Virology 192:618-630, 1993; D. C. Bloom et al., J. Virol. 68:1283-1292, 1994; J. M. Hill et al., Virology 174:117-125, 1990; G. C. Perng et al., J. Virol. 68:8045-8055, 1994; F. Sedarati, K. M. Izumi, E. K. Wagner, and J. G. Stevens, J. Virol. 63:4455-4458, 1989). We therefore hypothesized that the 5' end of LAT and/or an as yet unidentified gene that overlaps part of this region is involved in viral virulence. We report here on the discovery and initial characterization of a novel HSV-1 RNA consistent with such a putative gene. The novel RNA was antisense to the 5' end of LAT and was designated AL-RNA (anti-LAT sense RNA). The AL-RNA overlapped the core LAT promoter and the first 158 nucleotides of the 5' end of the primary LAT transcript. AL-RNA was detected in extracts from neuron-like cells (PC-12) infected with wild-type HSV-1 but not in cells infected with a mutant with the AL region deleted. The deletions in each of the above three mutants with altered virulence encompass the 5' end of the AL-RNA, and these mutants cannot transcribe AL. This supports the hypothesis that the AL gene may play a role in viral virulence. Based on comparison to the corresponding genomic sequence, the AL-RNA did not appear to be spliced. The AL-RNA was polyadenylated and contained an open reading frame capable of encoding a protein 56 amino acids in length with a predicted molecular mass of 6.8 kDa. Sera from three of three rabbits infected with wild-type HSV-1 but not sera from any of three rabbits infected with a mutant with the AL-RNA region deleted recognized the Escherichia coli recombinantly expressed AL open reading frame on Western blots. In addition, four of six rabbits infected with wild-type virus developed enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay titers against one or more AL synthetic peptides. These results suggest that an AL protein is produced in vivo.