Ribozyme kinetics and binding studies of a two-piece group II intron were used to mechanistically characterize a reaction analogous to the first step of RNA splicing. Domain 5 RNA (D5) catalyzes specific hydrolysis of an RNA substrate (exD123) composed of sequences surrounding the 5' exon/intron boundary. Both single- and multiple-turnover kinetic analyses produced similar values of kcat (0.04 and 0.1 min-1, respectively) and Km (270 and 190 nM, respectively) for 5' splice site hydrolysis catalyzed by D5. Base pairing is not believed to stabilize the binding of D5 to exD123, so the low Km values suggest that unusual tertiary interactions provide considerable energetic stabilization to this complex. The strength of D5-exD123 binding was confirmed using a new direct binding assay based on gel filtration chromatography. In this initial application of the assay, which systematically underestimates binding by approximately 3-fold, Kd values were obtained in relative agreement with Km. This agreement, together with agreement between kinetically determined variables, suggests that the reaction is described by a straightforward Michaelis-Menten mechanism and that kcat is the rate of the chemical step. This is supported by the log/linear pH/rate profile for kcat which has a slope = 1 up to pH 6.2, consistent with a form of general base catalysis within this linear range. The shape of the plot suggests that the active site responsible for 5' splice site hydrolysis has a pKa of > or = 7.0.