In eukaryotes, mRNAs are primarily translated through a cap-dependent mechanism whereby initiation factors recruit the 40S ribosomal subunit to a cap structure at the 5' end of the mRNA. However, some viral and cellular messages initiate protein synthesis without a cap. They use a structured RNA element termed an internal ribosome entry site (IRES) to recruit the 40S ribosomal subunit. IRESs were discovered over 20 years ago, but only recently have studies using a model IRES from dicistroviruses expanded our understanding of how a 3D RNA structure can capture and manipulate the ribosome to initiate translation. © 2012 Elsevier Ltd.