The c-myc gene has been implicated in multiple cellular processes including proliferation, differentiation, and apoptosis. In addition to the full-length c-Myc 1 and 2 proteins, we have found that human, murine, and avian cells express smaller c-Myc proteins arising from translational initiation at conserved downstream AUG codons. These c-Myc short (c-Myc S) proteins lack most of the N-terminal transactivation domain but retain the C-terminal protein dimerization and DNA binding domains. As with full-length c-Myc proteins, the c-Myc S proteins appear to be localized to the nucleus, are relatively unstable, and are phosphorylated. Significant levels of c-Myc S, often approaching the levels of full-length c-Myc, are transiently observed during the rapid growth phase of several different types of cells. Optimization of the upstream initiation codons resulted in greatly reduced synthesis of the c-Myc S proteins, suggesting that a "leaky scanning" mechanism leads to the translation of these proteins. In some hematopoietic tumor cell lines having altered c-myc genes, the c-Myc S proteins are constitutively expressed at levels equivalent to that of full-length c-Myc. As predicted, the c-Myc S proteins are unable to activate transcription and inhibited transactivation by full-length c-Myc proteins, suggesting a dominant-negative inhibitory function. While these transcriptional inhibitors would not be expected to function as full-length c-Myc, the occurrence of tumors which express constitutive high levels of c-Myc S and their transient synthesis during rapid cell growth suggest that these proteins do not interfere with the growth-promoting functions of full-length c-Myc.