Transient expression of some proto-oncogenes, cytokines, and transcription factors occurs as a cellular response to growth factors, 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate, antigen stimulation, or inflammation. Expression of these genes is mediated in part by the rapid turnover of their mRNAs. A + U-rich elements in the 3' untranslated regions of these mRNAs serve as one recognition signal targeting the mRNAs for rapid degradation. I report the identification of a cytosolic factor that both binds to the proto-oncogene c-myc A + U-rich element and specifically destabilizes c-myc mRNA in a cell-free mRNA decay system which reconstitutes mRNA decay processes found in cells. Proteinase K treatment of the factor abolishes its c-myc mRNA degradation activity without affecting its RNA-binding capacity. Thus, RNA substrate binding and degradation appear to be separable functions. These findings should aid in understanding how the cell selectively targets mRNAs for rapid turnover.