Like protein enzymes, RNA enzymes (ribozymes) provide specific binding sites for their substrates. We now show that equilibrium dissociation constants for complexes between the Tetrahymena ribozyme and its RNA substrates and products can be directly measured by electrophoresis in polyacrylamide gels containing divalent cations. Binding is 10(3)- to 10(4)-fold tighter (4-5 kcal/mol at 42 degrees C) than expected from base-pairing interactions alone, implying that tertiary interactions also contribute to energetic stabilization. Binding decreases with single base changes in the substrate, substitution of deoxyribose sugars, and lower Mg2+ concentration. Ca2+, which enables the ribozyme to fold but is unable to mediate efficient RNA cleavage, promotes weaker substrate binding than Mg2+. This indicates that Mg2+ has special roles in both substrate binding and catalysis. Mutagenesis of a region near the internal guide sequence disrupts substrate binding, whereas binding is not significantly affected by a mutation of the guanosine-binding site. This approach should be generally useful for analysis of ribozyme variants independent of their catalytic activities.