We have used oligonucleotide-directed site-specific mutagenesis to convert serine codon 27 of the Escherichia coli chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (cat) gene to UAG, UAA, and UGA nonsense codons. The mutant cat genes, under transcriptional control of the Rous sarcoma virus long terminal repeat, were then introduced into mammalian cells by DNA transfection along with UAG, UAA, and UGA suppressor tRNA genes derived from a human serine tRNA. Assay for CAT enzymatic activity in extracts from such cells allowed us to detect and quantitate nonsense suppression in monkey CV-1 cells and mouse NIH3T3 cells. Using such an assay, we provide the first direct evidence that an opal suppressor tRNA gene is functional in mammalian cells. The pattern of suppression of the three cat nonsense mutations in bacteria suggests that the serine at position 27 of CAT can be replaced by a wide variety of amino acids without loss of enzymatic activity. Thus, these mutant cat genes should be generally useful for the quantitation of suppressor activity of suppressor tRNA genes introduced into cells and possibly for the detection of naturally occurring nonsense suppressors.