Selenocysteine is recognized as the 21st amino acid in ribosome-mediated protein synthesis and its specific incorporation is directed by the UGA codon. Unique tRNAs that have complementary UCA anticodons are aminoacylated with serine, the seryl-tRNA is converted to selenocysteyl-tRNA and the latter binds specifically to a special elongation factor and is delivered to the ribosome. Recognition elements within the mRNAs are essential for translation of UGA as selenocysteine. A reactive oxygen-labile compound, selenophosphate, is the selenium donor required for synthesis of selenocysteyl-tRNA. Selenophosphate synthetase, which forms selenophosphate from selenide and ATP, is found in various prokaryotes, eukaryotes, and archaebacteria. The distribution and properties of selenocysteine-containing enzymes and proteins that have been discovered to date are discussed. Artificial selenoenzymes such as selenosubtilisin have been produced by chemical modification. Genetic engineering techniques also have been used to replace cysteine residues in proteins with selenocysteine. The mechanistic roles of selenocysteine residues in the glutathione peroxidase family of enzymes, the 5' deiodinases, formate dehydrogenases, glycine reductase, and a few hydrogenases are discussed. In some cases a marked decrease in catalytic activity of an enzyme is observed when a selenocysteine residue is replaced with cysteine. This substitution caused complete loss of glycine reductase selenoprotein A activity.