Phage-specific transcription and subsequent RNA processing in Escherichia coli infected with the filamentous phage (f1, M13, fd) generate a pool of abundant and relatively long-lived phage mRNA species encoding the four adjacent genes V, VII, IX and VIII. Yet the products of gene V and gene VIII are synthesized at much higher levels than the gene VII and gene IX proteins. To ask if the translational initiation sites heading these genes show corresponding differences in activity and/or functional properties, we have purified a number of the phage mRNAs from cells infected with f1 and examined them in in vitro initiation reactions. The ribosome binding patterns obtained for the phage mRNA species and for smaller defined RNA fragments containing selected initiator regions reveal a large range in apparent ribosome binding strengths. The gene V and gene VIII sites are recognized efficiently in each mRNA species in which they are present. Gene IX site activity appears to be limited by local mRNA structure: the site has undetectable or low ribosome binding activity in all of the phage mRNA species, but is at least tenfold more active if the RNA sequences required to form a potential hairpin stem-and-loop 15 nucleotides upstream from the initiator AUG have been removed. The gene VII site shows no evidence of interaction with ribosomes in any phage mRNA or RNA fragment tested. The same striking differences in initiation activity were observed in vivo by cloning small f1 DNA fragments containing gene V or gene VII initiation site sequences to drive β-galactosidase synthesis. High levels of a gene V-β-galactosidase fusion protein are initiated at the V site, but no detectable synthesis occurs from the VII site. If the VII site is preceded by all of the information encoding the upstream gene V, however, modest amounts of a fusion protein initiated at the VII site are produced. The overall results, in accord with the observed yields of proteins in the phage-infected cell, provide strong evidence that the properties of these translational initiation sites determine in a significant way the differential expression of phage f1 genes V, VII, IX and VIII.