The termination of protein synthesis in bacteria requires codon-specific polypeptide release factors RF-1 (UAG/UAA specific) and RF-2 (UGA/UAA specific). We have proposed that release factors mimic tRNA and recognize the stop codon for polypeptide release (Nakamura et al (1996) Cell 87, 147-150). In contrast to the textbook view, genetic experiments have indicated that Escherichia coli RF-2 terminates translation very weakly at UAA while Salmonella RF-2 decodes this signal efficiently. Moreover, an excess of E coli RF-2 was toxic to cells while an excess of Salmonella RF-2 was not. These two RF-2 proteins are identical except for 16 out of 365 amino acids. Fragment swap experiments and site-directed mutagenesis revealed that a residue at position 246 is solely responsible for these two phenotypes. Upon substituting Ala (equivalent to Salmonella RF-2) for Thr-246 of E coli RF-2, the protein acquired increased release activity for UAA as well as for UGA. These results led us to conclude that E coli RF-2 activity is potentially weak and that the amino acid at position 246 plays a crucial role, not for codon discrimination, but for stop codon recognition or polypeptide release, presumably constituting an essential moiety of tRNA mimicry or interacting with peptidyltransferase centers of the ribosome.