Recombinant plasmids that direct synthesis of rat preproinsulin under the direction of the SV40 early promoter have been used to probe the mechanism of initiation of translation. Insertion of an upstream AUG triplet that was out-of-frame with respect to the coding sequence for preproinsulin reduced the yield of proinsulin, in keeping with the predictions of the scanning model. The extent to which an upstream AUG codon interfered depended on sequences surrounding the AUG triplet; with two constructs ( p255 /20 and C2) the 5'-proximal AUG codon constituted an absolute barrier: there was no initiation at the downstream start site for preproinsulin. With two other constructs ( p255 /9, p255 /21), however, proinsulin was made despite the presence of an upstream, out-of-frame AUG codon in a favorable context for initiation. In those cases the reading frame set by the first AUG triplet was short, terminating before the start of the preproinsulin coding sequence. The interpretation that ribosomes initiate at the first AUG, terminate, and then reinitiate at the AUG that directly precedes the preproinsulin coding sequence was tested by introducing a point mutation that eliminated the terminator codon: the resulting mutant made no proinsulin.