The biophysical properties of the tobacco mosaic tobamovirus (TMV) coat protein (CP) make it possible to display foreign peptides on the surface of TMV. The immunogenic epitopes G5-24 from the rabies virus (RV) glycoprotein, and 5B19 from murine hepatitis virus (MHV) S-glycoprotein were successfully displayed on the surface of TMV, and viruses accumulated to high levels in infected leaves of Nicotiana tabacum Xanthi-nn. The peptide RB19, which contains an arginine residue plus the 5B19 epitope fused to the CP (TMV-RB19), resulted in the induction of necrotic local lesions on inoculated leaves of N. tabacum Xanthi-nn and cell death of infected BY2 protoplasts. RNA dot blot assays confirmed that expression of the acidic and basic pathogenesis-related PR2 genes were induced in infected Xanthi-nn leaf tissue. TMV that carried epitope 31D from the RV nucleoprotein did not accumulate in inoculated tobacco leaves. Analysis of hybrid CPs predicted that the isoelectric points (pI):charge value was 5.31: − 2 for wild-type CP, 5.64: − 1 for CP-RB19, and 9.14: + 2 for CP-31D. When acidic amino acids were inserted in CP-RB19 and CP-31D to bring their pI:charge to near that of wild-type CP, the resulting viruses TMV-RB19E and TMV-4D:31D infected N. tabacum Xanthi-nn plants and BY2 protoplasts without causing cell death. These data show the importance of the pI of the epitope and its effects on the hybrid CP pI:charge value for successful epitope display as well as the lack of tolerance to positively charged epitopes on the surface of TMV.