Replication of human immunodeficiency virus requires binding of the viral Tat protein to its RNA target sequence TAR; peptides derived from Tat bind to a TAR "contact site" spanning 5 bp and a trinucleotide pyrimidine bulge. We find that high affinity binding requires a U residue in the bulge loop and 2 specific adjacent base pairs. Other bulged RNAs bind in a lower affinity nonspecific manner; sequence-specific binding requires a bulge loop of more than 1 nucleotide. Reaction with diethyl pyrocarbonate indicates that one effect of the bulge is to make the otherwise deep and narrow RNA major groove accessible. A model consistent with these data involves local distortion of A-form geometry at the bulge, which bends the helix and permits protein binding and interactive access in the RNA major groove.