The release factor eRF1 terminates protein biosynthesis by recognizing stop codons at the A site of the ribosome and stimulating peptidyl-tRNA bond hydrolysis at the peptidyl transferase center. The crystal structure of human eRF1 to 2.8 A resolution, combined with mutagenesis analyses of the universal GGQ motif, reveals the molecular mechanism of release factor activity. The overall shape and dimensions of eRF1 resemble a tRNA molecule with domains 1, 2, and 3 of eRF1 corresponding to the anticodon loop, aminoacyl acceptor stem, and T stem of a tRNA molecule, respectively. The position of the essential GGQ motif at an exposed tip of domain 2 suggests that the Gln residue coordinates a water molecule to mediate the hydrolytic activity at the peptidyl transferase center. A conserved groove on domain 1, 80 A from the GGQ motif, is proposed to form the codon recognition site.