We previously showed that a 9-nucleotide sequence from the 5' leader of the Gtx homeodomain mRNA facilitates translation initiation by base pairing to 18S rRNA. These earlier studies tested the Gtx element in isolation; we now assess the physiological relevance of this element in the context of two natural mRNAs that contain this sequence in their 5' leaders, Gtx itself and FGF2 (fibroblast growth factor 2). 2'-O-Methyl-modified RNA oligonucleotides were employed to block mRNA-rRNA base pairing by targeting either the Gtx-binding site in 18S rRNA or Gtx elements in recombinant mRNAs containing the Gtx or FGF2 5' leaders linked to a reporter cistron. Studies in cell-free lysates and transfected COS-7 cells showed that translation of mRNAs containing the Gtx or FGF2 5' leaders was decreased by > 50% when oligonucleotides targeting either the rRNA or mRNA were used. Specificity was demonstrated by showing that translation of the recombinant mRNAs was unaffected by control oligonucleotides. In addition, the specific oligonucleotides did not affect the translation of recombinant mRNAs in which the Gtx elements were mutated. Experiments performed using constructs containing Gtx and FGF2 5' leader and coding sequences ruled out possible effects of the reporter cistron. Furthermore, two-dimensional gel electrophoresis revealed that the oligonucleotides used in this study had little overall effect on the proteomes of cells transfected with these oligonucleotides. This study demonstrates that mRNA-rRNA base pairing affects the expression of two cellular mRNAs and describes a new approach for investigating putative mRNA-rRNA base pairing interactions in mammalian cells.