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The products of the bacteriophage T4 terminase genes 16 and 17 are known to mediate cutting and packaging of concatemeric vegetative DNA. We show here that the larger of these genes, 17, yields multiple protein species. The complex expression of the T4 terminase genes includes overlapping transcripts, probably initiated from multiple promoters, RNA processing at certain preferred sites and translation initiation from multiple ribosome binding sites (RBS). Translation initiation from these RBS may be modulated by inverted repeat (IR) sequences whose folding can be predicted to differ in different RNA species. In T4 infected bacteria, genes 16 and 17 are probably co-transcribed from several near-consensus late promoters upstream from gene 16, and processed at multiple sites. Additional 5' ends of late transcripts are located downstream from a near-consensus late promoter inside gene 17 and further downstream, unrelated to any known promoter consensus sequence. The gene 17 transcripts that are initiated or cleaved internally contain RBS for shorter open reading frames (ORFs) in the same frame as full-length gene product (gp) 17 of 70 kDa. The truncated proteins, a 59-kDa gp17' and a 45-kDa gp17", are synthesized from cloned gene 17 segments in which the first gene 17 RBS is deleted. Expression of gene 17 is different in BL21(DE3) or W3110[pACT7] host bacteria. The gp17' and gp17" proteins are predicted to contain one or more of the ATPase motifs that are common among large subunits of other phage terminases. They lack a predicted single stranded (ss) DNA binding motif that is unique the large terminase proteins in T4 gp17, and that has been implicated in recognizing ssDNA regions in replicating and recombining T4DNA destined to be packaged. We hypothesize that a truncated gene 17' is an evolutionary precursor of the full-size T4 gene 17. Its function may have been maintained to allow processive packaging from double stranded (ds) DNA ends.