Amino acid starvation is shown to decrease the fidelity of translation in E. coli. When proteins are analyzed by two-dimensional gel electrophoresis, missense errors are detected as an unusual heterogeneity in their isoelectric points, while premature termination of protein synthesis can be recognized by a decreased relative rate of synthesis of higher molecular weight proteins and by the the accumulation of a complex group of new small polypeptides. The types of translational errors observed are amino acid-specific. For example, starvation of a rel- strain for histidine produces severe isoelectric point heterogeneity with little evidence of premature termination, while starvation for leucine has little effect on the isoelectric points, but produces a drastic decrease in the average molecular weight of the newly synthesized protein. These differences suggest codon-specific errors in reading the genetic code. In these rel- cells, the effect of amino acid starvation on the rates of synthesis of complete individual proteins is both protein- and amino acid-specific. For example, ribosomal protein L7/12, which lacks histidine, is made at a higher level during histidine starvation than during isoleucine or leucine starvation. This suggests that in rel- cells, the modulation of gene expression caused by the lack of a particular amino acid is, at least in part, a function of the abundance of that amino acid in particular proteins-that is, the response of rel- cells to starvation is consistent with the theory that the inhibition of protein synthesis and the accompanying increase in error frequency both result from low levels of the correct substrate. In marked contrast, virtually no starvation-induced translational errors are detected in a rel+ strain, and the response is not amino acid-specific. Varoius data strongly imply that in this rel+ strain, essentially all the changes caused by starvation are due to the accumulation of ppGpp, which independently reduces protein synthesis, thereby suppressing all the direct effects of amino acid limitation seen in rel- strains (where ppGpp does not accumulate upon starvation). A model is presented which describes how ppGpp might suppress the direct effects of starvation and avoid the loss of translational fidelity. In addition, the direct and specific effects of ppGpp on gene expression are examined independently of amino acid starvation.