Translation in rabbit reticulocyte lysate is relatively independent of the presence of the mRNA m7G cap structure and the cap binding protein, eIF-4E. In addition, initiation occurs frequently at spurious internal sites. Here we show that a critical parameter which contributes to cap-dependent translation is the amount of general RNA binding proteins in the extract. Addition of several general RNA binding proteins, such as hnRNP A1, La autoantigen, pyrimidine tract binding protein (hnRNP I/PTB) and the major core protein of cytoplasmic mRNP (p50), rendered translation in a rabbit reticulocyte lysate cap dependent. These proteins drastically inhibited the translation of an uncapped mRNA, but had no effect on translation of a capped mRNA. Based on these and other results, we suggest that one function of general mRNA binding proteins in the cytoplasm is to promote ribosome binding by a 5' end, cap-mediated mechanism, and prevent spurious initiations at aberrant translation start sites.