The tuf gene of Mycoplasma genitalium uses a signal other than a Shine-Dalgarno sequence to promote translation initiation. We have inserted the translation initiation region of this gene in front of the Escherichia coli lacZ gene and shown that it is recognized by the translational machinery of E. coli; the signal operates in vivo at roughly the same efficiency as a synthetic Shine-Dalgarno sequence. The M. genitalium sequence was also used to replace the native translation initiation region of the cat gene. When assayed in E. coli, the M. genitalium sequence is equivalent to a Shine-Dalgarno sequence in stimulating translation of this mRNA also. Site-directed mutagenesis enabled us to identify some of the bases that comprise the functional sequence. We propose that the sequence UUAACAACAU functions as a ribosome binding site by annealing to nucleotides 1082-1093 of the E. coli 16S rRNA. The activity of this sequence is enhanced when it is present in the loop of a stem-and-loop structure. Additional sequences both upstream and downstream of the initiation codon are also involved, but their role has not been elucidated.