We have devised a method to follow the stability of individual ternary transcription complexes containing Escherichia coli RNA polymerase halted at many different sites along a DNA template during the transcription process. Studies of complexes formed with phage T7 DNA templates reveal at least three general classes of ternary complexes that differ dramatically in their properties. Complexes of one sort (normal complexes) are highly stable to dissociation and denaturation under a variety of solution conditions. They remain intact and active for up to 24 hours even in salt concentrations up to 1 M-K+. This suggests that they are stabilized to a significant extent by non-ionic interactions between RNA polymerase and the nucleic acids. We consider these to be the normal complexes formed during RNA chain elongation. Complexes of a second sort (release complexes) dissociate rapidly, releasing free RNA transcripts and active RNA polymerase. The rate of dissociation is substantially enhanced by elevated concentrations of K+, hence the interaction between RNA polymerase and nucleic acids in these complexes is stabilized predominantly by ionic interactions. However, release complexes are stabilized by millimolar concentrations of Mg2+, which as been implicated in stabilization of the binding of RNA to free RNA polymerase. These complexes are formed at DNA sequences that we refer to as release sites. Analysis of DNA sequences at release sites reveals that all share a common feature, the potential to form an RNA hairpin in the region just upstream from the actual 3' end of the released RNA. Experiments incorporating IMP in the transcript and blocking potential hairpin formation with DNA oligomers support a direct role for an RNA hairpin in triggering the release reaction. Changes in the 3'-proximal DNA sequences generally have little effect on the presence or rate of the release reaction, although there are significant exceptions. The results suggest that the presence of certain RNA hairpins in the region six to ten nucleotides upstream from the transcript growing point can trigger a substantial structural transition in the ternary transcription complex, forming a "release mode" complex from which transcript dissociation is facilitated. This release, mode complex may be a central intermediate in RNA chain termination. A final class of complexes (dead-end complexes) appear to be elongating complexes that have entered a state or conformation that is stable, but is blocked in resuming the normal elongation reaction. Such complexes bear active RNA polymerase, and can be restarted after limited pyrophosphorolysis. The structural elements that determine the formation of dead-end complexes are not yet known.