We have used alpha-oligomers as antisense oligonucleotides complementary to three different sequences of the rabbit beta-globin mRNA: a region adjacent to the cap site, a region spanning the AUG initiation codon or a sequence in the coding region. These alpha-oligonucleotides were synthesized either with a free 5' OH group or linked to an acridine derivative. The effect of these oligonucleotides on mRNA translation was investigated in cell-free extracts and in Xenopus oocytes. In rabbit reticulocyte lysate and in wheat germ extracts oligomers targeted to the cap site and the initiation codon reduced beta-globin synthesis in a dose-dependent manner, whereas the target mRNA remained intact. The anti-cap alpha-oligomer was even more efficient that its beta-counterpart in rabbit reticulocyte lysate. In contrast, only the alpha-oligomer, linked to the acridine derivative, complementary to the cap region displayed significant antisense properties in Xenopus oocytes. Therefore initiation of translation can be arrested by oligonucleotide/RNA hybrids which are not substrates for RNase-H.