The initiation of translation of hepatitis C virus (HCV) is cap-independent and mediated by an internal ribosome entry site (IRES) that is located in the 5' nontranslated region (5' NTR) of the viral genome. This 5' NTR is relatively long and folds into a complex structure involving multiple hairpins and a pseudoknot. Within the sequence encompassing the IRES there are several AUG triplets. Some of these AUG codons are conserved between HCV genotypes and the related pestiviruses. In this study the 5 AUG codons (positions 13, 32, 85, 96, and 215) that are present in the 5' NTR of the HCV H-strain have been mutagenized to determine their influence on HCV cap-independent translation. The effect of these mutations on the expression of a chloramphenicol acetyl transferase (CAT) gene was tested in vaccinia virus vTF7-3 infected Hep2 cells transfected with plasmids for the expression of a monocistronic HCV 5' NTR-CAT mRNA. Mutating the AUG codons at positions 13, 32, and 215 does not have a significant effect on CAT expression, inactivating the AUG codons at either position 85 or position 96 severely impaired IRES function. To determine whether ribosomes scan the RNA to select the initiation site, AUG codons were inserted up- and downstream of the authentic HCV polyprotein translation initiation codon (position 342). Analysis of these mutants has revealed that the ribosome is unable to use an AUG codon that is placed either 7 nucleotides upstream or 8 nucleotides downstream of the inactivated AUG at position 342. These results indicate that when scanning is involved in the recognition of the translation initiating AUG, it is limited to a narrow region between nucleotides 335 and 350.