In eukaryotes, protein synthesis initiates primarily by a mechanism that requires a modified nucleotide 'cap' on the mRNA and also proteins that recruit and position the ribosome. Many pathogenic viruses use an alternative, cap-independent mechanism that substitutes RNA structure for the cap and many proteins. The RNAs driving this process are called internal ribosome-entry sites (IRESs) and some are able to bind the ribosome directly using a specific 3D RNA structure. Recent structures of IRES RNAs and IRES-ribosome complexes are revealing the structural basis of viral IRES' 'hijacking' of the protein-making machinery. It now seems that there are fundamental differences in the 3D structures used by different IRESs, although there are some common features in how they interact with ribosomes.