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Cyclin E was first identified by screening human cDNA libraries for genes that would complement G1 cyclin mutations in Saccharomyces cerevisiae and has subsequently been found to have specific biochemical and physiological properties that are consistent with it performing a G1 function in mammalian cells. Most significantly, the cyclin E-Cdk2 complex is maximally active at the G1/S transition, and overexpression of cyclin E decreases the time it takes the cell to complete G1 and enter S phase. We have now found that mammalian cells express two forms of cyclin E protein which differ from each other by the presence or absence of a 15-amino-acid amino-terminal domain. These proteins are encoded by alternatively spliced mRNAs and are localized to the nucleus during late G1 and early S phase. Fibroblasts engineered to constitutively overexpress either form of cyclin E showed elevated cyclin E-dependent kinase activity and a shortened G1 phase of the cell cycle. The overexpressed cyclin E protein was detected in the nucleus during all cell cycle phases, including G0. Although the cyclin E protein could be overexpressed in quiescent cells, the cyclin E-Cdk2 complex was inactive. It was not activated until 6 to 8 h after readdition of serum, 4 h earlier than the endogenous cyclin E-Cdk2. This premature activation of cyclin E-Cdk2 was consistent with the extent of G1 shortening caused by cyclin E overexpression. Microinjection of affinity-purified anti-cyclin E antibodies during G1 inhibited entry into S phase, whereas microinjection performed near the G1/S transition was ineffective. These results demonstrate that cyclin E is necessary for entry into S phase. Moreover, we found that cyclin E, in contrast to cyclin D1, was required for the G1/S transition even in cells lacking retinoblastoma protein function. Therefore, cyclins E and D1 control two different transitions within the human cell cycle.