The onset of muscle cell differentiation is associated with increased transcription of muscle-specific mRNA. Studies from this laboratory using 19-d embryonic rat skeletal muscle, suggest that additional, posttranscriptional controls regulate maturation of muscle tissue via a quantitative effect upon translation, and that the regulatory component may reside within the poly A- RNA pool (Nathanson, M.A., E.W. Bush, and C. Vanderburg. 1986. J. Biol. Chem. 2611477-1486). To further characterize muscle cell translational control, embryonic and adult total RNA were separated into oligo(dT)cellulose-bound (poly A+) and -unbound (poly A-) pools. Unbound material was subjected to agarose gel electrophoresis to resolve constituents of varying molecular size and mechanically cut into five fractions. Material of each fraction was electroeluted and recovered by precipitation. Equivalent loads of total RNA from 19-20-d embryonic rat skeletal muscle exhibited a 40% translational inhibition in comparison to its adult counterpart. Inhibition was not due to decreased message abundance because embryonic, as well as adult muscle, contained equivalent proportions of poly A+ mRNA. An inhibition assay, based upon the translatability of adult RNA and its inhibition by embryonic poly A- RNA, confirmed that inhibition was associated with a 160-2,000-nt poly A- fraction. Studies on the chemical composition of this fraction confirmed its RNA composition, the absence of ribonucleoprotein, and that its activity was absent from similarly fractionated adult RNA. Rescue of inhibition could be accomplished by addition of extra lysate or mRNA; however, smaller proportions of lysate were required, suggesting a strong interaction of inhibitor and components of the translational apparatus. Additional studies demonstrated that the inhibitor acted at the level of initiation, in a dose-dependent fashion. The present studies confirm the existence of translational control in skeletal muscle and suggest that it operates at the embryonic to adult transition. A model of muscle cell differentiation, based upon transcriptional control at the myoblast level, followed by translational regulation at the level of the postmitotic myoblast and/or myotube, is proposed.