- An in vitro selection method has been developed to obtain RNA molecules that specifically undergo autolytic cleavage reactions by Pb2+ ion. The method utilizes a circular RNA intermediate which is regenerated following the cleavage reaction to allow amplification and multiple cycles of selection. Pb2+ is known to catalyze a specific cleavage reaction between U17 and G18 of yeast tRNA(Phe). Starting from pools of RNA molecules which have a random distribution of sequences at nine or ten selected positions in the sequence of yeast tRNA(Phe), we have isolated many RNA molecules that undergo rapid and specific self-cleavage with Pb2+ at a variety of different sites. Terminal truncation experiments suggest that most of these self-cleaving RNA molecules do not fold like tRNA. However, two of the variants are cleaved rapidly with Pb2+ at U17 even though they lack the highly conserved nucleotides G18 and G19. Both specific mutations and terminal truncation experiments suggest that the D and T loops of these two variants interact in a manner similar to that of tRNA(Phe) despite the absence of the G18U55 and G19C56 tertiary interactions. A model for an alternate tertiary interaction involving a U17U55 pair is presented. This model may be relevant to the structure of about 100 mitochondrial tRNAs that also lack G18 and G19. The selection method presented here can be directly applied to isolate catalytic RNAs that undergo cleavage in the presence of other metal ions, modified nucleotides, or sequence-specific nucleases.