Human prostate cells chronically infected with the Mantooth strain of subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) virus multiply normally, fuse only occasionally to form giant cells, and yet have twisted intracytoplasmic nucleocapsids. These cells are able to support replication of vesicular stomatitis virus, although they release only small amounts of SSPE virus. To determine why carrier cells do not produce virus, they were examined with techniques for surface replication, freeze-fracturing, and immunoperoxidase labeling with SSPE antibody. The surface of carrier cells, like that of productive cells, is characterized by ridges crowned with viral antigens and devoid of the intramembrane particles revealed by freeze-fracture techniques. Since surface ridges form where nucleocapsids attach to the membrane, the shape and length of ridges are indicative of the shape and length of the underlying nucleocapsid. Whereas ridges on productive cells are serpentine in shape, those on carrier cells are typically straight or hairpin shaped, and the hairpin ridges are twice as long as serpentine ridges on productive cells. Furthermore, the spacing between ridges on carrier cells is never as small as that in productive infections, so that continuous sheets of viral membrane are never formed. The majority of carrier cells lack the round viral buds observed in productive cells but have, instead, many elongated processes attached to the cell surface. Each of these processes contains one or two hairpin ridges overlying hairpin-shaped nucleocapsids. These "hairpin buds" are restricted to a single region of the carrier cell surface, whereas viral buds are distributed over the entire surface of productive cells. Thus, there are several structural defects in carrier cells that depend on the specific interaction of a certain viral strain with a certain cell type. These defects prevent the deployment of viral antigen in some regions of the cell surface, the formation of nucleocapsids of normal length, the coiling of attached nucleocapsids, and the consolidation of sheets of viral membrane into spherical buds with the nucleocapsids coiled inside. These defects may account for the failure of carrier cells to shed infectious virus.