The current prevalence of the acquired immune deficiency syndrome in humans has provoked renewed interest in methods of protective immunization against retrovirus-induced diseases. In this study, a vaccinia-retrovirus recombinant vector was constructed to study mechanisms of immune protection against Friend virus leukemia in mice. The envelope (env) gene from Friend murine leukemia virus (F-MuLV) was inserted into the genome of a vaccinia virus expression vector. Infected cells synthesized gp85, the glycosylated primary product of the env gene. Processing to gp70 and p15E, and cell surface localization, were similar to that occurring in cells infected with F-MuLV. Mice inoculated with live recombinant vaccinia virus had an envelope-specific T-cell proliferative response and, after challenge with Friend virus complex, developed neutralizing antibody and cytotoxic T cells (CTL) and were protected against leukemia. In contrast, unimmunized and control groups developed a delayed neutralizing antibody response, but no detectable CTL, and succumbed to leukemia. Genes of the major histocompatibility complex influenced protection induced by the vaccinia recombinant but not that induced by attenuated N-tropic Friend virus.