Alterations in the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) coat protein affect the elicitation of the N' gene hypersensitive response (HR) in Nicotiana sylvestris. To investigate this structure-function relationship, amino acid substitutions with predicted structural effects were created throughout the known structure of the TMV coat protein. Substitutions that resulted in the elicitation of the HR resided within and would predictably interfere with interface regions located between adjacent subunits in ordered aggregates of coat protein. Substitutions that did not result in the elicitation of the HR were either conservative or located outside these interface regions. In vitro analysis of coat protein aggregates demonstrated HR-eliciting coat proteins to have reduced aggregate stability in comparison with non-HR-eliciting coat proteins and a correlation existed between the strength of the elicited HR and the ability of a substitution to interfere with ordered aggregate formation. This finding corresponded with the predicted structural effects of HR-eliciting substitutions. Radical substitutions that predictably disrupted coat protein tertiary structure were found to prevent HR elicitation. These findings demonstrate that structural alterations that affect the stability of coat protein quaternary structure but not tertiary structure lead to host cell recognition and HR elicitation. A model for HR elicitation is proposed, in which disassembly of coat protein aggregates exposes a host "receptor" binding site.