Protein synthesis is regulated in response to environmental stimuli by covalent modification, primarily phosphorylation, of components of the translational machinery. Phosphorylation of the alpha subunit of eIF-2 is one of the best-characterized mechanisms for down-regulating protein synthesis in higher eukaryotes in response to various stress conditions. Three distinct protein kinases regulate protein synthesis in eukaryotic cells by phosphorylating the alpha subunit of eIF-2 at serine-51. There are two mammalian eIF-2alpha kinases: the double-stranded RNA-dependent kinase (PKR) and heme-regulated inhibitor kinase (HRI), and the yeast GCN2. The regulatory mechanisms and the molecular sizes of these eIF-2alpha kinases are different. The expression of PKR is induced by interferon, and the kinase activity is stimulated by low concentrations of double-stranded RNA. HRI is activated under heme-deficient conditions. Yeast GCN2 is activated by amino acid starvation. The phosphorylation of eIF-2alpha results in the shutdown of protein synthesis. Nevertheless, the eIF-2alpha kinases can regulate both global as well as specific mRNA translation. Inhibition of protein synthesis correlates with eIF-2alpha phosphorylation in response to a wide variety of different stimuli, including heat shock, serum deprivation, glucose starvation, amino acid starvation, exposure to heavy metal ions, and viral infection. Finally, recent studies suggest a role for eIF-2alpha phosphorylation in the control of cell growth and differentiation.