Abstract Background The process of HIV-1 genomic RNA (gRNA) encapsidation is governed by a number of viral encoded components, most notably the Gag protein and gRNA cis elements in the canonical packaging signal (ψ). Also implicated in encapsidation are cis determinants in the R, U5, and PBS (primer binding site) from the 5' untranslated region (UTR). Although conventionally associated with nuclear export of HIV-1 RNA, there is a burgeoning role for the Rev/RRE in the encapsidation process. Pleiotropic effects exhibited by these cis and trans viral components may confound the ability to examine their independent, and combined, impact on encapsidation of RNA into HIV-1 viral particles in their innate viral context. We systematically reconstructed the HIV-1 packaging system in the context of a heterologous murine leukemia virus (MLV) vector RNA to elucidate a mechanism in which the Rev/RRE system is central to achieving efficient and specific encapsidation into HIV-1 viral particles. Results We show for the first time that the Rev/RRE system can augment RNA encapsidation independent of all cis elements from the 5' UTR (R, U5, PBS, and ψ). Incorporation of all the 5' UTR cis elements did not enhance RNA encapsidation in the absence of the Rev/RRE system. In fact, we demonstrate that the Rev/RRE system is required for specific and efficient encapsidation commonly associated with the canonical packaging signal. The mechanism of Rev/RRE-mediated encapsidation is not a general phenomenon, since the combination of the Rev/RRE system and 5' UTR cis elements did not enhance encapsidation into MLV-derived viral particles. Lastly, we show that heterologous MLV RNAs conform to transduction properties commonly associated with HIV-1 viral particles, including in vivo transduction of non-dividing cells (i.e. mouse neurons); however, the cDNA forms are episomes predominantly in the 1-LTR circle form. Conclusions Premised on encapsidation of a heterologous RNA into HIV-1 viral particles, our findings define a functional HIV-1 packaging system as comprising the 5' UTR cis elements, Gag, and the Rev/RRE system, in which the Rev/RRE system is required to make the RNA amenable to the ensuing interaction between Gag and the canonical packaging signal for subsequent encapsidation.