The translation of ferritin and erythroid 5-aminolevulinate synthase mRNAs is regulated via a specific high-affinity interaction between an iron-responsive element in the 5' untranslated region of ferritin and erythroid 5-aminolevulinate synthase mRNAs and a 98-kDa cytoplasmic protein, the iron-regulatory factor. Iron-regulatory factor was expressed in vaccinia-virus-infected HeLa cells (hIRFvac) and in Escherichia coli (hIRFeco). An N-terminal histidine tag allowed a rapid one-step purification of large quantities of soluble recombinant protein. Both hIRFvac and hIRFeco bound specifically to iron-responsive elements and were immunoprecipitated by iron-regulatory-factor antibodies. Using in-vitro-transcribed chloramphenicol-acetyltransferase mRNAs bearing an iron-responsive element in the 5' untranslated region, specific repression of chloramphenicol-acetyltransferase translation by hIRFvac and hIRFeco was demonstrated in wheat-germ extract. In addition, hIRFvac and hIRFeco were shown to display aconitase activity. Treatment of hIRFvac and hIRFeco with FeSO4 resulted in a drastic reduction in iron-responsive-element-binding of iron-regulatory factor, but caused a strong stimulation of its aconitase activity. The results establish that recombinant iron-regulatory factor is a bifunctional protein; after purification, it binds to iron-responsive elements and represses translation in vitro. Following iron treatment, iron-responsive-element binding is lost and aconitase activity is gained. No eukaryotic co-factor seems to be required for the conversion of the iron-responsive-element binding to the aconitase form of the protein.