The binding of initiation factors to 30 S ribosomal subunits protects specific sets of nucleotides in 16 S rRNA from base-specific chemical probes. Initiation factor 3 (IF-3) protects residues G700, G703 and G791 from attack by kethoxal. These protected bases are close to those in 16 S rRNA that are protected by 50 S subunits, providing a structural basis for the subunit dissociation activity of IF-3. The IF-3-dependent protections also flank bases that are protected by P-site-bound tRNA, in keeping with the possibility that IF-3 may interact with initiator tRNA, or influence the properties of the 30 S P site during initiation. IF-1 protects G530, A1492 and A1493 and causes enhanced reactivity of A1408. These bases are precisely the ones that are protected by the binding of tRNA to the ribosomal A site. This suggests that IF-1 mimics A-site-bound tRNA, and could serve to prevent premature binding of aminoacyl tRNA by blocking the 30 S A site. We were unable to detect any effect of IF-2 on the reactivity pattern of 16 S rRNA, suggesting that this factor may interact primarily through protein-protein interactions.