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Maturation of most eukaryotic mRNA 3' ends requires endonucleolytic cleavage and polyadenylation of precursor mRNAs. To further understand the mechanism and function of mRNA 3' end processing, we identified a temperature-sensitive mutant of Saccharomyces cerevisiae defective for polyadenylation. Genetic analysis showed that the polyadenylation defect and the temperature sensitivity for growth result from a single mutation. Biochemical analysis of extracts from this mutant shows that the polyadenylation defect occurs at a step following normal site-specific cleavage of a pre-mRNA at its polyadenylation site. Molecular cloning and characterization of the wild-type allele of the mutated gene revealed that it (PAP1) encodes a previously characterized poly(A) polymerase with unknown RNA substrate specificity. Analysis of mRNA levels and structure in vivo indicate that shift of growing, mutant cells to the nonpermissive temperature results in the production of poly(A)-deficient mRNAs which appear to end at their normal cleavage sites. Interestingly, measurement of the rate of protein synthesis after the temperature shift shows that translation continues long after the apparent loss of polyadenylated mRNA. Our characterization of the pap1-1 defect implicates this gene as essential for mRNA 3' end formation in S. cerevisiae.