Two proteins, one of 31 kDa and one of 16 kDa, are encoded by a segment of the phage lambda tail gene region that contains two overlapping reading frames, neither of which is long enough to encode the larger protein. We show that the abundant 16-kDa protein (gpG) is encoded by the upstream open reading frame, gene G. The 31-kDa protein, gpG-T, is encoded jointly by gene G and the overlapping downstream T open reading frame. gpG-T is synthesized as the result of a translational frameshift that occurs when a ribosome translating the G gene slips back by one nucleotide at a position six codons from the C terminus of the gene and thereby bypasses the G termination codon to continue on in the T open reading frame. The resulting protein shares 135 residues of N-terminal amino acid sequence with gpG, followed by 144 amino acid residues of unique sequence. The frameshift event occurs with a frequency of approximately 4% at the sequence G GGA AAG, which encodes the dipeptide -Gly-Lys- in both the zero and -1 reading frames. The frameshift frequencies of point mutants in this "slippery sequence" argue that codon-anticodon interactions with both the glycyl and the lysyl-tRNA are important for frameshifting to occur. We find no clear evidence for a pausing mechanism to enhance frameshifting, as is seen in other well-characterized frameshifts. No simple secondary structure has been predicted for the region downstream from the slippery sequence, but this downstream sequence does contribute to the frameshifting rate. Our results together with those of Katsura and Kühl show that the frameshift product, gpG-T, has an essential role in lambda tail assembly, acting prior to tail shaft assembly. The role of gpG in tail assembly is not known. We find that both gpG and the gpG-T are absent from mature virions.