The interaction between bacteriophage R17 coat protein and its RNA binding site for translational repression was studied as an example of a sequence-specific RNA-protein interaction. A nitrocellulose filter retention assay is used to demonstrate equimolar binding between the coat protein and a synthetic 21 nucleotide RNA fragment. The Kd at 2 degrees C in a buffer containing 0.19 M salt is about 1 nM. The relatively weak ionic strength dependence of Ka and a delta H = -19 kcal/mole indicates that most of the binding free energy is due to non-electrostatic interactions. Since a variety of RNAs failed to compete with the 21 nucleotide fragment for coat protein binding, the interaction appears highly sequence specific. We have synthesized more than 30 different variants of the binding site sequence in order to identify the portions of the RNA molecule which are important for protein binding. Out of the five single stranded residues examined, four were essential for protein binding whereas the fifth could be replaced by any nucleotide. One variant was found to bind better than the wild type sequence. Substitution of nucleotides which disrupted the secondary structure of the binding fragment resulted in very poor binding to the protein. These data indicated that there are several points of contact between the RNA and the protein and the correct hairpin secondary structure of the RNA is essential for protein binding.