The ability of plant cells to translate dicistronic mRNAs that mimic a segment of the polycistronic 35S RNA from cauliflower mosaic virus has been tested. The chloramphenicol acetyltransferase and beta-glucuronidase open reading frames (ORFs) were fused in-frame to the second viral cistron (ORF I). Efficient reporter expression from the corresponding plasmids in plant protoplasts was observed only upon cotransfection with viral DNA. The trans-activating gene maps at ORF VI, which is expressed from a separate, monocistronic messenger (19S RNA). Deletion analysis shows that trans-activation selectively enhances downstream gene expression; the high expression of the upstream ORF is not further increased. The major reporter transcript remained bicistronic upon trans-activation, and its abundance varied only to a limited extent. Results indicate that trans-activation enhances the translation of downstream ORFs on polycistronic mRNAs derived from cauliflower mosaic virus.