Aminoacylated (charged) transfer RNA isoacceptors read different messenger RNA codons for the same amino acid. The concentration of an isoacceptor and its charged fraction are principal determinants of the translation rate of its codons. A recent theoretical model predicts that amino-acid starvation results in ‘selective charging’ where the charging levels of some tRNA isoacceptors will be low and those of others will remain high. Here, we developed a microarray for the analysis of charged fractions of tRNAs and measured charging for all Escherichia coli tRNAs before and during leucine, threonine or arginine starvation. Before starvation, most tRNAs were fully charged. During starvation, the isoacceptors in the leucine, threonine or arginine families showed selective charging when cells were starved for their cognate amino acid, directly confirming the theoretical prediction. Codons read by isoacceptors that retain high charging can be used for efficient translation of genes that are essential during amino-acid starvation. Selective charging can explain anomalous patterns of codon usage in the genes for different families of proteins.