We used transformation of yeast mitochondria and homologous gene replacement to study features of the 613-base COX3 mRNA 5' untranslated leader (5'-UTL) required for translational activation by the protein products of the nuclear genes PET54, PET122, and PET494 in vivo. Elimination of the single AUG triplet in the 5'-UTL had no detectable effect on expression, indicating that activator proteins do not work by allowing ribosomes to bypass that AUG. Deletion of the entire 5'-UTL completely prevented translation, suggesting that the activator proteins do not function by antagonizing any other negative element in the 5'-UTL. Removal of the 15 terminal bases from the 5' end of the 5'-UTL did not block activator-dependent translation. The largest internal deletion that did not interfere with translation removed 125 bases from the upstream portion of the leader. However, two large deletions that blocked translation could be reverted to activator-dependent expression by secondary changes in the remaining 5'-UTL sequences, indicating that the original deletions had not removed the translational activator target but only deformed it. Taken together, the deletion mutations and revertants define a region of 151 bases (between positions -480 and -330 relative to the start codon) containing sequences that are sufficient for translational activation when modified slightly. Suppression of the respiratory phenotypes of two 5'-UTL mutations by overexpression of PET54, PET122, and PET494 indicated functional interactions between the leader and the three activator proteins. The mature COX3 mRNA is cleaved from a precursor immediately downstream of the preceding tRNAVal in a fashion resembling mRNA processing in vertebrate mitochondria. Our results indicate that the site of this cleavage in Saccharomyces cerevisiae is determined solely by the position of the tRNA.