During translation initiation, 40S ribosomes scan the mRNA until they encounter the start codon, where conformational changes produce a translation-competent 80S complex. Destabilizing the scanning complex results in misinitiation at non-AUG codons, demonstrating its importance for fidelity. Here, we use a combination of biochemical and genetic analyses to demonstrate that the ability of the nascent subunit to adopt the scanning complex is tested during assembly via structural mimicry. Specifically, formation of the 80S-like assembly intermediate, which structurally resembles scanning complexes, requires the correct folding of two rRNA elements in the subunit head and the proper positioning of the universally conserved head proteins Rps3, Rps15, Rps20, and Rps29. rRNA misfolding impairs the formation of 80S-like ribosomes, and bypass of individual checkpoints using cancer-associated mutations produces ribosomes defective in accurate start-site selection. Thus, the formation of 80S-like assembly intermediates is a quality control step that ensures scanning competence of the nascent subunit.

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