The interaction of DAPI and propidium with RNA (polyA.polyU) and corresponding DNA (polydA.polydT) sequences has been compared by spectroscopic, kinetic, viscometric, Tm, and molecular modeling methods. Spectral changes of propidium are similar on binding to the AT and AU sequences but are significantly different for binding of DAPI. Spectral changes for DAPI with the DNA sequence are consistent with the expected groove-binding mode. All spectral changes for complexes of propidium with RNA and DNA and for DAPI with RNA, however, are consistent with an intercalation binding mode. When complexed with RNA, for example, DAPI aromatic protons signals shift significantly upfield, and the DAPI UV-visible spectrum shows significantly larger changes than when complexed with DNA. Slopes of log kd (dissociation rate constants) versus-log [Na+] plots are similar for complexes of propidium with RNA and DNA and for the DAPI-RNA complex and are in the range expected for an intercalation complex. The slope for the DAPI-DNA complex, however, is much larger and is in the range expected for a groove-binding complex. Association kinetics results also support an intercalation binding mode for the DAPI-RNA complex. The viscosity of polyA.polyU solutions increases significantly on addition of both propidium and DAPI, again in agreement with an intercalation binding mode for both molecules with RNA. Molecular modeling studies completely support the experimental findings and indicate that DAPI forms a very favorable intercalation complex with RNA. DAPI also forms a very stable complex in the minor groove of AT sequences of DNA, but the stabilizing interactions are considerably reduced in the wide, shallow minor groove of RNA. Modeling studies,thus,indicate that DAPI interaction energetics are more favorable for minor-groove binding in AT sequences but are more favorable for interaction in RNA.