Adenovirus vectors are extensively used for high-level expression of proteins in mammalian cells and are receiving increasing attention for their potential use as live recombinant vaccines and as transducing viruses for use in gene therapy. Although it is commonly argued that one of the chief advantages of adenovirus vectors is their relative stability, this has not been thoroughly investigated. To examine the genetic stability of adenovirus type 5 vectors and in particular to examine the relationship between genetic stability and genome size, adenovirus vectors were constructed with inserts of 4.88 (herpes simplex virus type 1 gB), 4.10 (herpes simplex virus type 1 gB), or 3.82 (LacZ) kb combined with a 1.88-kb E3 deletion or with a newly generated 2.69-kb E3 deletion. The net excess of DNA over the wild-type (wt) genome size ranged from 1.13 to 3.00 kb or 3.1 to 8.3%. Analysis of these vectors during serial passage in tissue culture revealed that when the size exceeded 105% of the wt genome length by approximately 1.2 kb (4.88-kb insert combined with a 1.88-kb deletion), the resulting vector grew very poorly and underwent rapid rearrangement, resulting in loss of the insert after only a few passages. In contrast, vectors with inserts resulting in viral DNA close to or less than a net genome size of 105% of that of the wt grew well and were relatively stable. In general, viruses with genomes only slightly above 105% of that of the wt were unstable and the rapidity with which rearrangement occurred correlated with the size of the insert. These findings suggest that there is a relatively tight constraint on the amount of DNA which can be packaged into virions and that exceeding the limit results in a sharply decreased rate of virus growth. The resultant strong selection for variants which have undergone rearrangement, generating smaller genomes, is manifested as genetic instability of the virus population.