eIF-4A is a translation initiation factor that exhibits bidirectional RNA unwinding activity in vitro in the presence of another translation initiation factor, eIF-4B and ATP. This activity is thought to be responsible for the melting of secondary structure in the 5' untranslated region of eukaryotic mRNAs to facilitate ribosome binding. eIF-4A is a member of a fast growing family of proteins termed the DEAD family. These proteins are believed to be RNA helicases, based on the demonstrated in vitro RNA helicase activity of two members (eIF-4A and p68) and their homology in eight amino acid regions. Several related biochemical activities were attributed to eIF-4A: (i) ATP binding, (ii) RNA-dependent ATPase and (iii) RNA helicase. To determine the contribution of the highly conserved regions to these activities, we performed site-directed mutagenesis. First we show that recombinant eIF-4A, together with recombinant eIF-4B, exhibit RNA helicase activity in vitro. Mutations in the ATPase A motif (AXXXXGKT) affect ATP binding, whereas mutations in the predicted ATPase B motif (DEAD) affect ATP hydrolysis. We report here that the DEAD region couples the ATPase with the RNA helicase activity. Furthermore, two other regions, whose functions were unknown, have also been characterized. We report that the first residue in the HRIGRXXR region is involved in ATP hydrolysis and that the SAT region is essential for RNA unwinding. Our results suggest that the highly conserved regions in the DEAD box family are critical for RNA helicase activity.