To determine mechanisms by which persistent viral infections are established and maintained, we initiated persistent infections of murine erythroleukemia (MEL) cells by using reovirus strains type 3 Abney and type 3 Dearing. Establishment of persistent reovirus infections of MEL cells was not associated with a significant cytopathic effect despite the presence of high titers of infectious virus in the cultures (>10(5) PFU/ml of culture lysate). Maintenance of persistently infected MEL-cell cultures was associated with coevolution of mutant viruses and cells. Mutant viruses produced greater yields than the parental wild-type (wt) strains in MEL cells cured of persistent infection and in cells treated with ammonium chloride, a weak base that blocks viral disassembly. Mutant cells supported growth of wt infectious subvirion particles, which are disassembly intermediates generated in vitro by treatment of virions with chymotrypsin, substantially better than growth of wt virions. These findings indicate that viral and cellular mutations selected during maintenance of persistently infected MEL-cell cultures affect acid-dependent proteolysis of virions during entry into cells. We also found that wt infectious subvirion particles produce greater yields than wt virions in wt MEL cells, which suggests that inefficient viral disassembly in MEL cells favors establishment of persistent infection. Therefore, steps in reovirus replication leading to viral disassembly appear to be critical determinants of the capacity of MEL cells to support both establishment and maintenance of persistent reovirus infections.