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A system for testing the effects of specific codons on gene expression is described. Tandem test and control genes are contained in a transcription unit for bacteriophage T7 RNA polymerase in a multicopy plasmid, and nearly identical test and control mRNAs are generated from the primary transcript by RNase III cleavages. Their coding sequences, derived from T7 gene 9, are translated efficiently and have few low-usage codons of Escherichia coli. The upstream test gene contains a site for insertion of test codons, and the downstream control gene has a 45-codon deletion that allows test and control mRNAs and proteins to be separated by gel electrophoresis. Codons can be inserted among identical flanking codons after codon 13, 223, or 307 in codon test vectors pCT1, pCT2, and pCT3, respectively, the third site being six codons from the termination codon. The insertion of two to five consecutive AGG (low-usage) arginine codons selectively reduced the production of full-length test protein to extents that depended on the number of AGG codons, the site of insertion, and the amount of test mRNA. Production of aberrant proteins was also stimulated at high levels of mRNA. The effects occurred primarily at the translational level and were not produced by CGU (high-usage) arginine codons. Our results are consistent with the idea that sufficiently high levels of the AGG mRNA can cause essentially all of the tRNA(AGG) in the cell to become sequestered in translating peptidyl-tRNA(AGG) -mRNA-ribosome complexes stalled at the first of two consecutive AGG codons and that the approach of an upstream translating ribosome stimulates a stalled ribosome of frameshift, hop, or terminate translation.