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Ribosomal frameshifting is an essential requirement for replication of many viruses and retrovirus-like elements. It is regarded as a potential target for antiretroviral therapy. It has been shown that the frameshifting event takes place in the -1 direction within a sequence, the slippery sequence, which is usually followed by structured RNA. To distinguish between the basic sequence requirements and the modulating elements in intact cells, we have established a sensitive assay system for quantitative determination of ribosomal frameshifting in mammalian cell culture. In this assay system, the gag and pol genes of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 are replaced by the genes for the functional enzymes beta-galactosidase and luciferase, respectively. The sensitivity of the test system allows us to demonstrate for the first time that the slippery sequence, a heptanucleotide, is sufficient to mediate a basal level of ribosomal frameshifting independent of its position within a gene. The stem-loop sequence serves only as a positive modulator. These data indicate that frameshifting could also occur during translation of cellular genes in which a slippery sequence is present within the reading frame. The resulting putative transframe proteins might have a functional importance for cellular processes.