Single-stranded genomic RNAs from four icosahedral viruses (poliovirus, turnip yellow mosaic virus (TYMV), brome mosaic virus (BMV), and satellite tobacco mosaic virus (STMV)) along with the RNA from the helical tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) were extracted using phenol/chloroform. The RNAs were imaged using atomic force microscopy (AFM) under dynamic conditions in which the RNA was observed to unfold. RNAs from the four icosahedral viruses initially exhibited highly condensed, uniform spherical shapes with diameters consistent with those expected from the interiors of their respective capsids. Upon incubation at 26 degrees C, poliovirus RNA gradually transformed into chains of globular domains having the appearance of thick, irregularly segmented fibers. These ultimately unwound further to reveal segmented portions of the fibers connected by single strands of RNA of 0.5-1 nm thickness. Virtually the same transformations were shown by TYMV and BMV RNA, and with heating, the RNA from STMV. Upon cooling, the chains of domains of poliovirus RNA and STMV RNA condensed and re-formed their original spherical shapes. TMV RNAs initially appeared as single-stranded threads of 0.5-1.0 nm diameter but took on the structure of the multidomain chains upon further incubation at room temperature. These ultimately condensed into short, thick chains of larger domains. Our observations suggest that classical extraction of RNA from icosahedral virions produces little effect on overall conformation. As tertiary structure is lost however, it is evident that secondary structural elements are arranged in a sequential, linear fashion along the polynucleotide chain. At least in the case of poliovirus and STMV, the process of tertiary structure re-formation from the linear chain of secondary structural domains proceeds in the absence of protein. RNA base sequence, therefore, may be sufficient to encode the conformation of the encapsidated RNA even in the absence of coat proteins.