In eukaryotes with the universal genetic code a single class I release factor (eRF1) most probably recognizes all stop codons (UAA, UAG and UGA) and is essential for termination of nascent peptide synthesis. It is well established that stop codons have been reassigned to amino acid codons at least three times among ciliates. The codon specificities of ciliate eRF1s must have been modified to accommodate the variant codes. In this study we have amplified, cloned and sequenced eRF1 genes of two hypotrichous ciliates, Oxytricha trifallax (UAA and UAG for Gln) and Euplotes aediculatus (UGA for Cys). We also sequenced/identified three protist and two archaeal class I RF genes to enlarge the database of eRF1/aRF1s with the universal code. Extensive comparisons between universal code eRF1s and those of Oxytricha, Euplotes, and Tetrahymena which represent three lineages that acquired variant codes independently, provide important clues to identify stop codon-binding regions in eRF1. Domain 1 in the five ciliate eRF1s, particularly the TASNIKS heptapeptide and its adjacent region, differs significantly from domain 1 in universal code eRF1s. This observation suggests that domain 1 contains the codon recognition site, but that the mechanism of eRF1 codon recognition may be more complex than proposed by Nakamura et al. or Knight and Landweber.