The secondary structure of the Escherichia coli alpha mRNA leader sequence has been determined using nucleases specific for single- or double-stranded RNA. Three different length alpha RNA fragments were studied at 0 degrees C and 37 degrees C. A very stable eight base-pair helix forms upstream from the ribosome initiation site, defining a 29 base loop. There is evidence for base-pairing between nucleotides within this loop and for a "pseudo-knot" interaction of some loop bases with nucleotides just 3' to the initiation codon, forming a region of complex structure. A weak helix also pairs sequences near the 5' terminus of the alpha mRNA with bases near the Shine-Dalgarno sequence. Affinity constants for the translational repressor S4 binding different length alpha mRNA fragments indicate that most of the S4 recognition features must be contained within the main helix and hairpin regions. Binding of S4 to the alpha mRNA alters the structure of the 29 base hairpin region, and probably melts the weak pairing between the 5' and 3' termini of the leader. The pseudo-knot structure and the conformational changes associated with it provide a link between the structures of the S4 binding site and the ribosome binding site. The alpha mRNA may therefore play an active role in mediating translational repression.