We have genetically reverted HIS4 initiator codon mutants in yeast and identified three unlinked genes, sui1, sui2, and SUI3 (suppressors of initiator codon mutants), which when mutated confer the ability to initiate at HIS4 despite the absence of an AUG start codon. Molecular and biochemical characterization shows that SUI3 encodes the beta-subunit of the eukaryotic translation initiation factor eIF-2. SUI3 suppressor genes contain single base changes at a Zn(II) finger motif. This motif is present in a cDNA sequence encoding the human eIF-2 beta gene product. Mutations in SUI3 suppressor alleles change amino acids that are conserved in the yeast and human motifs. Protein sequence analysis shows that a mutant beta-subunit allows initiation at a UUG codon in the absence of an AUG start codon at HIS4. Taken together, these data implicate a nucleic acid-binding domain of eIF-2 as an important component of the "scanning" ribosome that participates in recognition of a start codon.