The class I ligase, a ribozyme previously isolated from random sequence, catalyzes a reaction similar to RNA polymerization, positioning its 5'-nucleotide via a Watson-Crick base pair, forming a 3',5'-phosphodiester bond between its 5'-nucleotide and the substrate, and releasing pyrophosphate. Like most ribozymes, it requires metal ions for structure and catalysis. Here, we report the ionic requirements of this self-ligating ribozyme. The ligase requires at least five Mg(2+) for activity and has a [Mg(2+)](1/2) of 70-100 mM. It has an unusual specificity for Mg(2+); there is only marginal activity in Mn(2+) and no detectable activity in Ca(2+), Sr(2+), Ba(2+), Zn(2+), Co(2+), Cd(2+), Pb(2+), Co(NH(3))(6)(3+), or spermine. All tested cations other than Mg(2+), including Mn(2+), inhibit the ribozyme. Hill analysis in the presence of inhibitory cations suggested that Ca(2+) and Co(NH(3))(6)(3+) inhibit by binding at least two sites, but they appear to productively fill a subset of the required sites. Inhibition is not the result of a significant structural change, since the ribozyme assumes a nativelike structure when folded in the presence of Ca(2+) or Co(NH(3))(6)(3+), as observed by hydroxyl-radical mapping. As further support for a nativelike fold in Ca(2+), ribozyme that has been prefolded in Ca(2+) can carry out the self-ligation very quickly upon the addition of Mg(2+). Ligation rates of the prefolded ribozyme were directly measured and proceed at 800 min(-1) at pH 9.0.