In Trypanosomatidae the messenger RNA's (mRNA's) that code for the variant surface glycoproteins (VSG's), tubulins, calmodulin, and at least a subset of other proteins contain a common 35-nucleotide leader sequence at their 5' ends. Hybrid-arrested in vitro translation has been used to show that all mRNA's in both African and South American trypanosomes contain this 35-nucleotide sequence. Oligonucleotides complementary to this sequence blocked translation of all trypanosome mRNA's in a rabbit reticulocyte lysate system, but did not inhibit translation of mRNA's from other organisms lacking this sequence. An oligonucleotide complementary to the VSG mRNA downstream from the spliced leader sequence arrested only VSG synthesis. Thus, the 35-nucleotide leader sequence is a general feature of all trypanosome mRNA's. The high specificity of oligonucleotides complementary to the spliced leader for their target sequence suggests that analogues permeable to the cell membrane may be useful in the treatment of trypanosomal infections.