RNA transcripts containing the hammerhead ribozyme have been engineered to self-destruct in the presence of specific nucleoside 3',5'-cyclic monophosphate compounds. These RNA molecular switches were created by a new combinatorial strategy termed 'allosteric selection,' which favors the emergence of ribozymes that rapidly self-cleave only when incubated with their corresponding effector compounds. Representative RNAs exhibit 5,000-fold activation upon cGMP or cAMP addition, display precise molecular recognition characteristics, and operate with catalytic rates that match those exhibited by unaltered ribozymes. These findings demonstrate that a vast number of ligand-responsive ribozymes with dynamic structural characteristics can be generated in a massively parallel fashion. Moreover, optimized allosteric ribozymes could serve as highly selective sensors of chemical agents or as unique genetic control elements for the programmed destruction of cellular RNAs.