We report the synthesis and nucleic acid binding properties of two cyclic RNA oligonucleotides designed to bind single-stranded nucleic acids by pyr.pur.pyr-type triple helix formation. The circular RNAs are 34 nucleotides in size and were cyclized using a template-directed nonenzymatic ligation. To ensure isomeric 3'-5' purity in the ligation reaction, one nucleotide at the ligation site is a 2'-deoxyribose. One circle (1) is complementary to the sequence 5'-A12, and the second (2) is complementary to 5'-AAGAAAGAAAAG. Results of thermal denaturation experiments and mixing studies show that both circles bind complementary single-stranded DNA or RNA substrates by triple helix formation, in which two domains in a pyrimidine-rich circle sandwich a central purine-rich substrate. The affinities of these circles with their purine complements are much higher than the affinities of either the linear precursors or simple Watson-Crick DNA complements. For example, circle 1 binds rA12 (pH 7.0, 10 mM MgCl2, 100 mM NaCl) with a Tm of 48 degrees C and a Kd (37 degrees C) of 4.1 x 10(-9) M, while the linear precursor of the circle binds with a Tm of 34 degrees C and a Kd of 1.2 x 10(-6) M. The complexes of circle 2 are pH-dependent, as expected for triple helical complexes involving C(+)G.C triads, and mixing plots for both circles reveal one-to-one stoichiometry of binding either to RNA or DNA substrates. Comparison of circular RNAs with previously synthesized circular DNA oligonucleotides of the same sequence reveals similar behavior in the binding of DNA, but strikingly different behavior in the binding of RNA. The cyclic DNAs show high DNA-binding selectivity, giving relatively weaker duplex-type binding with complementary RNAs. The relative order of thermodynamic stability for the four types of triplex studied here is found to be DDD >> RRR > RDR >> DRD. The results are discussed in the context of recent reports of strong triplex dependence on RNA versus DNA backbones. Triplex-forming circular RNAs represent a novel and potentially useful strategy for high-affinity binding of RNA.