Knowledge of the sites, structures, and functional roles of posttranscriptional modification in rRNAs is limited, despite steadily accumulating evidence that rRNA plays a direct role in the peptidyl transferase reaction and that modified nucleotides are concentrated at the functional center of the ribosome. Using methods based on mass spectrometry, modifications have been mapped in Escherichia coli 23 S rRNA in the central loop of domain V, a region of established interaction between 23 S RNA and tRNA. Two segments of RNA were isolated following protection with oligodeoxynucleotides and nuclease digestion: residues 2423-2473 (51-mer) and 2481-2519 (39-mer). Dihydrouridine was located at position 2449, within the RNase T1 hydrolysis product 2448-ADAACAGp-2454, as evidenced by a molecular mass 2 daltons higher than the gene sequence-predicted mass. This nucleoside, which is nearly ubiquitous in tRNA (where it is involved in maintenance of loop structure), is two bases from A-2551, a previously determined site of interaction between 23 S RNA and the CCA-aminoacyl terminus of tRNA at the ribosomal P-site. The oligonucleotide 2496-CACmCUCGp-2502 was isolated and accurately mass measured, and its nucleoside constituents were characterized by high performance liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry; there was no evidence of modification at position 2501 as implied by earlier work. Using similar techniques, the modified adenosine at position 2503 was unambiguously determined to be 2-methyladenosine in the fragment 2503-m2A psi Gp-2505.