Vaccinia virus (vv) mRNA capping enzyme is composed of a large and a small subunit encoded by genes D1 and D12, respectively. A 38-kDa interfering polypeptide is copurified with the vaccinia virus capping enzyme overproduced in Escherichia coli, but the origin of this polypeptide is unknown (P. Guo and B. Moss, 1990, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 87, 4023-4027). This polypeptide competes with the large subunit in binding to the small subunit during the assembly of the heterodimeric enzyme in the cell, resulting in a reduced yield of the active enzyme. Results from the studies of ribosome-binding site replacement, frame shifting, DNA deletion, and in vitro mutagenesis showed that the interfering polypeptide originated from a new translation initiation site within the D1 gene. Transfection of a plasmid containing an internal eukaryotic ribosome binding site into monkey kidney cells infected with vv producing T7 RNA polymerase resulted in the expression of the large subunit up to 30% of total cellular radiolabeled protein; however, the 38-kDa polypeptide was not detected. This finding suggests that the initiation site was recognized only by E. coli, not by eukaryotic cells. The Shine-Dalgarno sequence is not found in the corresponding region preceding the putative start codon, indicating that an unusual mechanism for ribosome binding exists. Mutagenesis of the putative initiation codon of the interfering polypeptide from ATG (Met), coding for residue 498 of the large subunit, to ATA (Ile) eliminated the expression of the interfering polypeptide. A stable and active mutant enzyme was expressed in E. coli HMS174(DE3) cell without the presence of the interfering polypeptide.