Initiation of translation in hepatitis C virus (HCV) is dependent on the presence of an internal ribosome entry site (IRES) contained in its 341-nt-long 5'-untranslated region (UTR). This region is very conserved among different isolates and has been used to classify HCV isolates in six different genotypes. These genotypes differ in nucleotide sequence that generally preserve the IRES structure. However, the small differences seen may be biologically and clinically significant as the HCV strains seem to differ from each other in several important ways, such as the behaviour of the viral infection and the response to interferon therapy. Therefore, differences in translational initiation efficiency amongst the various genotypes could provide an explanation for these phenomena. Using a bicistronic expression system we have compared the in vivo translational ability of the three most common European genotypes of HCV (1, 2, and 3). The results show that genotype 3 is less able than 1 and 2 to promote translation initiation. In addition, by site-directed mutagenesis of the sequence of the IRES domain III apical stem loop structure, we have shown that the conservation of the primary nucleotide sequence and not only the structure, is important for the conservation of IRES function.