A small ribozyme ligase (L1) selected from a random sequence population appears to utilize non-Watson-Crick base pairs at its ligation junction. Mutational and selection analyses confirmed the presence of these base pairings. Randomization of the L1 core and selection of active ligases yielded highly active variants whose rates were on the order of 1 min(-1). Base-pairing covariations confirmed the general secondary structure of the ligase, and the most active ligases contained a novel pentuple sequence covariation. The optimized L1 ligases may be optimal within their sequence spaces, and minimal ligases that span less than 60 nt in length have been engineered based on these results.