The elongation of RNA chains during transcription occurs in a ternary complex containing RNA polymerase (RNAP), DNA template, and nascent RNA. It is shown here that elongating RNAP from Escherichia coli can switch DNA templates by means of end-to-end transposition without loss of the transcript. After the switch, transcription continues on the new template. With the use of defined short DNA fragments as switching templates, RNAP-DNA interactions were dissected into two spatially distinct components, each contributing to the stability of the elongating complex. The front (F) interaction occurs ahead of the growing end of RNA. This interaction is non-ionic and requires 7 to 9 base pairs of intact DNA duplex. The rear (R) interaction is ionic and requires approximately six nucleotides of the template DNA strand behind the active site and one nucleotide ahead of it. The nontemplate strand is not involved. With the use of protein-DNA crosslinking, the F interaction was mapped to the conserved zinc finger motif in the NH2-terminus of the beta' subunit and the R interaction, to the COOH-terminal catalytic domain of the beta subunit. Mutational disruption of the zinc finger selectively destroyed the F interaction and produced a salt-sensitive ternary complex with diminished processivity. A model of the ternary complex is proposed here that suggests that trilateral contacts in the active center maintain the nonprocessive complex, whereas a front-end domain including the zinc finger ensures processivity.