We have shown that lariat formation during in vitro splicing of several RNA precursors, from Drosophila to man, occurs at a unique and identifiable but weakly conserved site, 18 to 37 nucleotides proximal to the 3' splice site. Lariat formation within an artificial intron lacking a normal branch-point sequence occurs at a cryptic site a conserved distance (approximately 23 nucleotides) from the 3' splice site. Analysis of beta-thalassemia splicing mutations revealed that lariat formation in the first intron of the human beta-globin gene occurs at the same site in normal and mutant precursors, even though alternate 5' and 3' splice sites are utilized in the mutants. Remarkably, cleavage at the 5' splice site and lariat formation do not occur when the precursor contains a beta-thalassemia deletion removing the polypyrimidine stretch and AG dinucleotide at the 3' splice site. In contrast, a single base substitution in the AG dinucleotide blocks cleavage at the 3' splice site but not at the 5' site.