The cytopathogenicity of vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) has been attributed mainly to the host shut-off activity of the viral matrix (M) protein, which inhibits both nuclear transcription and nucleocytoplasmic RNA transport, thereby effectively suppressing the synthesis of type I interferon (IFN). The M protein from persistently VSV-infected cells was shown to harbour characteristic amino acid substitutions (M51R, V221F and S226R) implicated in IFN induction. This study demonstrates that infection of human fibroblasts with recombinant VSV containing the M51R substitution resulted in IFN induction, whereas neither the V221F nor the S226R substitution effected an IFN-inducing phenotype. Only when V221F was combined with S226R were the host shut-off activity of the M protein abolished and IFN induced, independently of M51R. The M33A substitution, previously implicated in VSV cytotoxicity, did not affect host shut-off activity. M-mutant VSV containing all four amino acid substitutions retained cytotoxic properties in both Vero cells and IFN-competent primary fibroblasts. Infected-cell death was associated with the formation of giant polynucleated cells, suggesting that the fusion activity of the VSV G protein was involved. Accordingly, M-mutant VSV expressing a fusion-defective G protein or with a deletion of the G gene showed significantly reduced cytotoxic properties and caused long-lasting infections in Vero cells and mouse hippocampal slice cultures. In contrast, a G-deleted VSV expressing wild-type M protein remained cytotoxic. These findings indicate that the host shut-off activity of the M protein dominates VSV cytotoxicty, whilst the fusion-active G protein is mainly responsible for the cytotoxicity remaining with M-mutant VSV.