The Xenopus 5S RNA gene-specific transcription factor IIIA (TFIIIA) has nine consecutive Cys2His2 zinc finger motifs. Studies were conducted in vivo to determine the contribution of each of the nine zinc fingers to the activity of TFIIIA in living cells. Nine separate TFIIIA mutants were expressed in Xenopus embryos following microinjection of their respective in vitro-derived mRNAs. Each mutant contained a single histidine-to-asparagine substitution in the third zinc ligand position of an individual zinc finger. These mutations result in structural disruption of the mutated finger with little or no effect on the other fingers. The activity of mutant proteins in vivo was assessed by measuring transcriptional activation of the endogenous 5S RNA genes. Mutants containing a substitution in zinc finger 1, 2, or 3 activate 5S RNA genes at a level which is reduced relative to that in embryos injected with the message for wild-type TFIIIA. Proteins with a histidine-to-asparagine substitution in zinc finger 5 or 7 activate 5S RNA genes at a level that is roughly equivalent to that of the wild-type protein. Zinc fingers 8 and 9 appear to be critical for the normal function of TFIIIA, since mutations in these fingers result in little or no activation of the endogenous 5S RNA genes. Surprisingly, proteins with a mutation in zinc finger 4 or 6 stimulate 5S RNA transcription at a level that is significantly higher than that mediated by similar concentrations of wild-type TFIIIA. Differences in the amount of newly synthesized 5S RNA in embryos containing the various mutant forms of TFIIIA result from differences in the relative number and/or activity of transcription complexes assembled on the endogenous 5S RNA genes and, in the case of the finger 4 and finger 6 mutants, result from increased transcriptional activation of the normally inactive oocyte-type 5S RNA genes. The remarkably high activity of the finger 6 mutant can be reproduced in vitro when transcription is carried out in the presence of 5S RNA. Disruption of zinc finger 6 results in a form of TFIIIA that exhibits reduced susceptibility to feedback inhibition by 5S RNA and therefore increases the availability of the transcription factor for transcription complex formation.