Formation of the tertiary base pair G1401:C1501, which brings together two universally present and highly sequence-conserved single-stranded segments of small subunit ribosomal RNA, is essential for ribosome function. It was previously reported that mutation of G1401 inactivated all in vitro functions of the ribosome [Cunningham et al. (1992) Biochemistry 31, 7629-7637]. Here we show that mutation of C1501 to G was equally inactivating but that the double mutant C1401:G1501 with the base pair reversed had virtually full activity for tRNA binding to the P, A, and I sites and for peptide bond formation. Initiation-dependent formation of the first peptide bond remained 70-85% inhibited, despite full 70S initiation complex formation ability as evidenced by the ability to form fMET-puromycin. These results suggest that the defect in formation of the first peptide bond lies in filling the initial A site, Ai, rather than the subsequent elongation A sites, Ae. An increased mobility around the anticodon was detected by UV cross-linking of the anticodon of P-site-bound tRNA to C1399 as well as to the expected C1400. These findings provide the first experimental evidence for the existence of the G1401:C1501 base pair and show that this base pair, located at the decoding site, is essential for function. The structural implications of tertiary base pair formation are discussed.