We have examined the effect of binding ribosomal protein S4 to 16 S rRNA on the susceptibility of the RNA to a variety of chemical and enzymatic probes. We have used dimethyl sulfate to probe unpaired adenines (at N-1) and cytosines (at N-3), kethoxal to probe unpaired guanines (at N-1 and N-2) and cobra venom (V1) ribonuclease as a probe of base-paired regions of 16 S rRNA. Sites of attack by the probes were identified by primer extension using synthetic oligodeoxynucleotides. Comparison of probing results for naked and S4-bound rRNA shows: Protein S4 protects a relatively compact region of the 5' domain of 16 S rRNA from chemical and enzymatic attack. This region is bounded by nucleotides 27 to 47 and 394 to 556, and has a secondary structure characterized by the junction of five helical elements. Phylogenetically conserved irregular features (bulged nucleotides, internal loops and flanking unpaired nucleotides) and helical phosphodiester bonds of four of the helices are specifically protected in the S4-RNA complex. We conclude that this is the major, and possibly sole region of contact between 16 S rRNA and S4. Many of the S4-dependent changes mimic those observed on assembly of 16 S rRNA into 30 S ribosomal subunits. Binding of S4 causes enhanced chemical reactivity coupled with protection from V1 nuclease outside the S4 junction region in the 530, 720 and 1140 loops. We interpret these results as indicative of loss of structure, and suggest that S4 binding causes disruption of adventitious pairing in these regions, possibly by stabilizing the geometry of the RNA such that these interactions are prevented from forming.