The lysis gene of the RNA bacteriophage MS2 is not expressed unless translation of the overlapping coat gene takes place. To understand the molecular basis for this translational coupling the RNA secondary structure around the lysis gene start was analyzed with structure-specific enzymes and chemicals. The existence of a hairpin between nucleotides 1636 and 1707 is in agreement with the structural mapping data and also with the conservation of base-pairing in the related M12 phage. In this hairpin, the G residues in the Shine and Dalgarno region and start codon are inaccessible to RNase T1, which is consistent with the fact that ribosomal access to the lysis gene is blocked when there is no coat gene translation. Deletions or point mutations that are predicted to destabilize the hairpin give rise to lysis protein synthesis that is independent of coat gene translation. Base substitutions that are not expected to weaken the helix do not lead to independent lysis gene expression. Finally, nucleotide changes that strengthen the hairpin lead neither to uncoupled nor to coupled synthesis of the lysis protein. Structural analysis of mutant MS2 RNA shows that small changes in the stability of the secondary structure lead to substantial differences in translation initiation. The function of the hairpin structure in coupling lysis gene to coat gene translation requires that its stability is kept within narrow limits.