Recessive lethal mutations in the beta subunit of eIF-2 that restore HIS4 expression in the absence of an AUG start codon were isolated from diploid Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains. DNA sequence analysis of these alleles and of eIF-2 beta suppressor alleles isolated from haploid strains, identified point mutations that altered one of six amino acids that map to a Cys-X2-Cys-X19-Cys-X2-Cys "zinc finger" motif and immediately adjacent residues. Five of the affected amino acids are identical in the human and yeast eIF-2 beta protein. Together with earlier studies (Donahue et al., 1988), these point mutations implicate the zinc finger domain of eIF-2 beta in start-site selection during the scanning process. We have supplemented the mutations obtained by genetic selection with an additional set of constructed mutations in this region. Our studies indicate that the cysteine residues and the intervening amino acids of this motif are essential for eIF-2 beta function in translation initiation in vivo. However, the effects observed in cells containing a copy of eIF-2 beta with a deletion of this motif suggest that this mutated form is still able to associate with other components of the initiation complex, imparting defects on translation initiation. Thus, this motif may be required only for later events that lead to initiator codon recognition. Alterations in defined positions, as found in our suppressor alleles, could lead to recognition of non-AUG codons.