We describe the construction and characterization of retroviral vectors and packaging plasmids that produce helper-free retrovirus with titers of 1 X 10(6) to 5 X 10(6) within 48 h. These vectors contain the immediate early region of the human cytomegalovirus enhancer-promoter fused to the Moloney murine leukemia virus long terminal repeat at the TATA box in the 5' U3 region, yielding the pCL promoter. By selecting vectors designed to express genes from one of four promoters (dihydrofolate reductase, Rous sarcoma virus, long terminal repeat, or cytomegalovirus), the pCL system permits the investigator to control the level of gene expression in target cells over a 100-fold range, while maintaining uniformly high titers of virus from transiently transfected producer cells. The pCL packaging plasmids lack a packaging signal (delta-psi) and include an added safety modification that renders them self-inactivating through the deletion of the 3' U3 enhancer. Ecotropic, amphotropic (4070A), and amphotropic-mink cell focus-forming hybrid (10A1) envelope constructions have been prepared and tested, permitting flexible selection of vector pseudotype in accordance with experimental needs. Vector supernatants are free of helper virus and are of sufficiently high titer within 2 days of transient transfection in 293 cells to permit infection of more than 50% of randomly cycling target cells in culture. We demonstrated the efficacy of these vectors by using them to transfer three potent cell cycle control genes (the p16(INK4A), p53, and Rb1 genes) into human glioblastoma cells.