The genomic RNA of hepatitis A virus has two potential translation initiation sites for synthesis of a 251-kDa polyprotein. It is not known which of these AUG codons, located at positions 735-737 and 741-743, is used in vitro or in vivo. Site-directed mutagenesis was carried out to eliminate each start codon independently. Transcripts from the unmodified and modified cDNA clones were used either to program an in vitro translation system or for transfection of BS-C-1 cells. In vitro and in vivo translation data revealed preferential usage of the downstream AUG located at position 741 to 743, although either site could be utilized in the absence of the other. Both modified RNAs were able to induce productive infections in BS-C-1 cells. Deletion of almost all of the 5'-untranslated region (5'UTR) of the RNA, however, stimulated selection of AUG 735-737 in vitro resulting in equal utilization of both sites, suggesting a strong influence of the 5'UTR for directing the ribosome to a specific internal initiation site.