Abstract Wide ranging studies of the readthrough of translational stop codons within the last 25 years have suggested that the stop codon might be only part of the molecular signature for recognition of the termination signal. Such studies do not distinguish between effects on suppression and effects on termination, and so we have used a number of different approaches to deduce whether the stop signal is a codon with a context or an extended factor recognition element. A data base of natural termination sites from a wide range of organisms (148 organisms, ∼40000 sequences) shows a very marked bias in the bases surrounding the stop codon in the genes for all organisms examined, with the most dramatic bias in the base following the codon (+4). The nature of this base determines the efficiency of the stop signal in vivo, and in Escherichia coli this is reinforced by overexpressing the stimulatory factor, release factor-3. Strong signals, defined by their high relative rates of selecting the decoding release factors, are enhanced whereas weak signals respond relatively poorly. Site-directed cross-linking from the +1, and bases up to +6 but not beyond make close contact with the bacterial release factor-2. The translational stop signal is deduced to be an extended factor recognition sequence with a core element, rather than simply a factor recognition triplet codon influenced by context.