A HeLa cell 3'-exonuclease with properties of a mammalian mRNA poly(A) tail-removing enzyme has been characterized. The exonuclease shows high specificity for the poly(A) tail, and it is single strand-specific and requires a 3'-hydroxyl group for its activity. During degradation 5'-AMP is liberated as a product, and a 3'-OH group is left on the last adenosine residue of the remaining poly(A) tail. The activity is inhibited by 5'-AMP and can be competed by poly(A)-containing mRNA or poly(A). Based on these findings we propose a reaction pathway for poly(A) tail removal catalyzed by the HeLa cell poly(A) tail-specific 3' exonuclease.