Plant RNA viruses commonly exploit leaky translation termination signals in order to express internal protein coding regions. As a first step to elucidate the mechanism(s) by which ribosomes bypass leaky stop codons in vivo, we have devised a system in which readthrough is coupled to the transient expression of beta-glucuronidase (GUS) in tobacco protoplasts. GUS vectors that contain the stop codons and surrounding nucleotides from the readthrough regions of several different RNA viruses were constructed and the plasmids were tested for the ability to direct transient GUS expression. These studies indicated that ribosomes bypass the leaky termination sites at efficiencies ranging from essentially 0 to ca. 5% depending upon the viral sequence. The results suggest that the efficiency of readthrough is determined by the sequence surrounding the stop codon. We describe improved GUS expression vectors and optimized transfection conditions which made it possible to assay low-level translational events.