U4 small nuclear RNA (snRNA) is essential for pre-mRNA splicing, although its role is not yet clear. On the basis of a model structure (C. Guthrie and B. Patterson, Annu. Rev. Genet. 22:387-419, 1988), the molecule can be thought of as having six domains: stem II, 5' stem-loop, stem I, central region, 3' stem-loop, and 3'-terminal region. We have carried out extensive mutagenesis of the yeast U4 snRNA gene (SNR14) and have obtained information on the effect of mutations at 105 of its 160 nucleotides. Fifteen critical residues in the U4 snRNA have been identified in four domains: stem II, the 5' stem-loop, stem I, and the 3'-terminal region. These domains have been shown previously to be insensitive to oligonucleotide-directed RNase H cleavage (Y. Xu, S. Petersen-Bjørn, and J. D. Friesen, Mol. Cell. Biol. 10:1217-1225, 1990), suggesting that they are involved in intra- or intermolecular interactions. Stem II, a region that base pairs with U6 snRNA, is the most sensitive to mutation of all U4 snRNA domains. In contrast, stem I is surprisingly insensitive to mutational change, which brings into question its role in base pairing with U6 snRNA. All mutations in the putative Sm site of U4 snRNA yield a lethal or conditional-lethal phenotype, indicating that this region is important functionally. Only two nucleotides in the 5' stem-loop are sensitive to mutation; most of this domain can tolerate point mutations or small deletions. The 3' stem-loop, while essential, is very tolerant of change. A large portion of the central domain can be removed or expanded with only minor effects on phenotype, suggesting that it has little function of its own. Analysis of conditional mutations in stem II and stem I indicates that although these single-base changes do not have a dramatic effect on U4 snRNA stability, they are defective in RNA splicing in vivo and in vitro, as well as in spliceosome assembly. These results are discussed in the context of current knowledge of the interactions involving U4 snRNA.