Translation of the human hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA genome occurs by a mechanism known as "internal ribosome entry." This unusual strategy of translation is employed by naturally uncapped picornaviral genomic RNAs and several cellular mRNAs. A common feature of these RNAs is a relatively long 5' noncoding region (NCR) that folds into a complex secondary structure harboring an internal ribosome entry site (IRES). Evidence derived from the use of dicistronic expression systems, combined with an extensive mutational analysis, demonstrated the presence of an IRES within the HCV 5'NCR. The results of our continued mutational analysis to map the critical structural elements of the HCV IRES has led to the identification of a pseudoknot structure upstream of the initiator AUG. The evidence presented in this study is based upon the mutational analysis of the putative pseudoknot structure. This is further substantiated by biochemical and enzymatic probing of the wild-type and mutant 5'NCR. Further, the thermodynamic calculations, based upon a modified RNAKNOT program, are consistent with the presence of a pseudoknot structure located upstream of the initiator AUG. Maintenance of this structural element is critical for internal initiation of translation. The pseudoknot structure in the 5'NCR represents a highly conserved feature of all HCV subtypes and members of the pestivirus family, including hog cholera virus and bovine viral diarrhea virus.