Initiation of poliovirus translation is mediated by a large, structured segment of the 5' nontranslated region known as the internal ribosome entry site (IRES) and normally occurs 155 nucleotides (nt) downstream of the IRES at AUG743 (the AUG at nucleotide 743). Functional AUG codons introduced at nt 611 or 614 reduced initiation at AUG743 by 10 to 40% in vitro but had no effect on virus phenotype. To investigate the role of the nt 586-743 spacer in greater detail, four intervening termination codons were removed, and an additional AUG triplet at nt 683 was introduced by nucleotide substitution. Initiation at AUG743 was reduced by only 50 to 80%, depending on the number of upstream initiation codons. Initiation at AUG743 was also reduced following insertion of a stable hairpin at nt 630, but the reduction was modest in an ascites carcinoma cell extract. Initiation was more frequent at AUG743 than at AUG683 if mRNAs contained either an upstream initiation codon or the stable hairpin. These results suggested that not all initiation events at AUG743 can be accounted for by a scanning-dependent mechanism. Translation of bicistronic mRNAs in which the intercistronic spacer contained nt 630 to 742 of the poliovirus 5' nontranslated region indicated that these residues are not able to act as an entry point for ribosomes independently of the IRES. Insertion of increasingly longer sequences immediately downstream of the stable hairpin progressively reduced initiation at AUG743 without affecting initiation at AUG683. These results are discussed in terms of a model for initiation of poliovirus translation in which a complex RNA superstructure upstream of nt 586 promotes ribosome binding at an entry point determined by specific downstream cis-acting elements.