Binding of tRNAPhe to ribosomes shields a set of highly conserved nucleotides in 16S rRNA from attack by a combination of structure-specific chemical probes. The bases can be classified according to whether or not their protection is strictly poly(U)-dependent (G529, G530, U531, A1408, A1492, and A1493) or poly(U)-independent (A532, G693, A794, C795, G926, 2mG966, G1338, A1339, U1381, C1399, C1400, and G1401). A third class (A790, G791, and A909) is shielded by both tRNA and 50S ribosomal subunits. Similar results are obtained when the protecting ligand is tRNAPhe E. Coli, tRNAPhe yeast, tRNAPhe E. Coli lacking its 3' terminal CA, or the 15 nucleotide anticodon stem-loop fragment of tRNAPhe yeast. Implications for structural correlates of the classic ribosomal A- and P-sites and for the possible involvement of 16S rRNA in translational proofreading are discussed.