A major pathway of messenger RNA degradation in eukaryotic cells is initiated by shortening of the poly(A) tail, which, at least in yeast, triggers a decapping reaction, thereby exposing the mRNA to 5' --> 3' degradation. Decapping is the key step in this decay pathway because the transcript body is rapidly degraded following decapping. Accordingly, decapping is the site of numerous controls, including inhibition of decapping by the poly(A) tail and modulation of mRNA decapping rate by specific sequences. Moreover, a specialized decay pathway that degrades aberrant transcripts triggers rapid mRNA decapping independently of poly(A)-tail shortening. We have identified a yeast gene, termed DCP1, that encodes the decapping enzyme, or an essential component of a decapping complex. The protein Dcp1 is required for the normal decay of many unstable and stable yeast mRNAs, as well as mRNAs that are decapped independently of deadenylation. These results indicate that mRNA-specific rates of decapping, and thus decay, will result from differences in the interaction of the DCP1 decapping enzyme with individual transcripts.