Biosynthesis of bacteriophage T4 DNA polymerase is autogenously regulated at the translational level. The enzyme, product of gene 43, represses its own translation by binding to its mRNA 5' to the initiator AUG at a 36-40 nucleotide segment that includes the Shine-Dalgarno sequence and a putative RNA hairpin structure consisting of a 5-base-pair stem and an 8-base loop. We constructed mutations that either disrupted the stem or altered specific loop residues of the hairpin and found that many of these mutations, including single-base changes in the loop sequence, diminished binding of purified T4 DNA polymerase to its RNA in vitro (as measured by a gel retardation assay) and derepressed synthesis of the enzyme in vivo (as measured in T4 infections and by recombinant-plasmid-mediated expression). In vitro effects, however, were not always congruent with in vivo effects. For example, stem pairing with a sequence other than wild-type resulted in normal protein binding in vitro but derepression of protein synthesis in vivo. Similarly, a C----A change in the loop had a small effect in vitro and a strong effect in vivo. In contrast, an A----U change near the base of the hairpin that was predicted to increase the length of the base-paired stem had small effects both in vitro and in vivo. The results suggest that interaction of T4 DNA polymerase with its structured RNA operator depends on the spatial arrangement of specific nucleotide residues and is subject to modulation in vivo.