We have partially purified two 16S rRNA-specific methyltransferases, one of which forms m2G966 (m2G MT), while the other one makes m5C967 (m5C MT). The m2G MT uses unmethylated 30S subunits as a substrate, but not free unmethylated 16S rRNA, while the m5C MT functions reciprocally, using free rRNA but not 30S subunits (Nègre, D., Weitzmann, C. and Ofengand, J. (1990) UCLA Symposium: Nucleic Acid Methylation (Alan Liss, New York), pp. 1-17). We have now determined the basis for this unusual inverse specificity at adjacent nucleotides. Binding of ribosomal proteins S7, S9, and S19 to unmodified 16S rRNA individually and in all possible combinations showed that S7 plus S19 were sufficient to block methylation by the m5C MT, while simultaneously inducing methylation by the m2G MT. A purified complex containing stoichiometric amounts of proteins S7, S9, and S19 bound to 16S rRNA was isolated and shown to possess the same methylation properties as 30S subunits, that is, the ability to be methylated by the m2G MT but not by the m5C MT. Since binding of S19 requires prior binding of S7, which had no effect on methylation when bound alone, we attribute the switch in methylase specificity solely to the presence of RNA-bound S19. Single-omission reconstitution of 30S subunits deficient in S19 resulted in particles that could not be efficiently methylated by either enzyme. Thus while binding of S19 is both necessary and sufficient to convert 16S rRNA into a substrate of the m2G MT, binding of either S19 alone or some other protein or combination of proteins to the 16S rRNA can abolish activity of the m5C MT. Binding of S19 to 16S rRNA is known to cause local conformational changes in the 960-975 stem-loop structure surrounding the two methylated nucleotides (Powers, T., Changchien, L.-M., Craven, G. and Noller, H.F. (1988) J. Mol. Biol. 200, 309-319). Our results show that the two ribosomal RNA MTs studied in this work are exquisitely sensitive to this small but nevertheless functionally important structural change.