RAG-1 is an essential component of the site-specific V(D)J recombinase. A new assay system has revealed a significant contribution of the catalytically dispensible N-terminal region of RAG-1 to recombination activity. The foundation for this system is an Abelson virus-transformed cell line derived from RAG-1(-/-) mice that is dependent on the introduction of exogenous RAG-1 for rearrangement of either plasmid substrates or the endogenous immunoglobulin loci. Use of this line demonstrates that conserved and novel cysteine-containing elements in the N-terminal region are required for full RAG-1 activity when recombination activity is in a RAG-1 dose-responsive range. Our data suggest that the RAG-1 N-terminus enhances the formation of an active recombination complex that facilitates the rearrangement process.