Eukaryotic translation initiation factor 5A (eIF5A) is the only cellular protein that contains the unusual amino acid hypusine [N(epsilon)-(4-amino-2-hydroxybutyl)lysine]. Vertebrates carry two genes that encode two eIF5A isoforms, eIF5A-1 and eIF5A-2, which, in humans, are 84% identical. eIF5A-1 mRNA (1.3 kb) and protein (18 kDa) are constitutively expressed in human cells. In contrast, expression of eIF5A-2 mRNA (0.7-5.6 kb) and eIF5A-2 protein (20 kDa) varies widely. Whereas eIF5A-2 mRNA was demonstrable in most cells, eIF5A-2 protein was detectable only in the colorectal and ovarian cancer-derived cell lines SW-480 and UACC-1598, which showed high overexpression of eIF5A-2 mRNA. Multiple forms of eIF5A-2 mRNA (5.6, 3.8, 1.6 and 0.7 kb) were identified as the products of one gene with various lengths of 3'-UTR, resulting from the use of different polyadenylation (AAUAAA) signals. The eIF5A-1 and eIF5A-2 precursor proteins were modified comparably in UACC-1598 cells and both were similarly stable. When eIF5A-1 and eIF5A-2 coding sequences were expressed from mammalian vectors in 293T cells, eIF5A-2 precursor was synthesized at a level comparable to that of eIF5A-1 precursor, indicating that the elements causing inefficient translation of eIF5A-2 mRNA reside outside of the open reading frame. On sucrose gradient separation of cytoplasmic RNA, only a small portion of total eIF5A-2 mRNA was associated with the polysomal fraction, compared with a much larger portion of eIF5A-1 mRNA in the polysomes. These findings suggest that the failure to detect eIF5A-2 protein even in eIF5A-2 mRNA positive cells is, at least in part, due to inefficient translation.