Background: tmRNA acts first as a tRNA and then as an mRNA to rescue stalled ribosomes in eubacteria. Two unanswered questions about tmRNA function remain: how does tmRNA, lacking an anticodon, bypass the decoding machinery and enter the ribosome? Secondly, how does the ribosome choose the proper codon to resume translation on tmRNA? According to the -1 triplet hypothesis, the answer to both questions lies in the unique properties of the three nucleotides upstream of the first tmRNA codon. These nucleotides assume an A-form conformation that mimics the codon-anticodon interaction, leading to recognition by the decoding center and choice of the reading frame. The -1 triplet hypothesis is important because it is the most credible model in which direct binding and recognition by the ribosome sets the reading frame on tmRNA. Results: Conformational analysis predicts that 18 triplets cannot form the correct structure to function as the -1 triplet of tmRNA. We tested the tmRNA activity of all possible -1 triplet mutants using a genetic assay in Escherichia coli. While many mutants displayed reduced activity, our findings do not match the predictions of this model. Additional mutagenesis identified sequences further upstream that are required for tmRNA function. An immunoblot assay for translation of the tmRNA tag revealed that certain mutations in U85, A86, and the -1 triplet sequence result in improper selection of the first codon and translation in the wrong frame (-1 or +1) in vivo. Conclusion: Our findings disprove the -1 triplet hypothesis. The -1 triplet is not required for accommodation of tmRNA into the ribosome, although it plays a minor role in frame selection. Our results strongly disfavor direct ribosomal recognition of the upstream sequence, instead supporting a model in which the binding of a separate ligand to A86 is primarily responsible for frame selection.