The intervening sequence (IVS) excised from the pre-rRNA of Tetrahymena undergoes a self-catalyzed cleavage-ligation reaction to form a covalently closed circular RNA. This cyclization reaction is kinetically inhibited by ethidium bromide (50% inhibition at 22 +/- 14 microM, greater than 99% inhibition at 53 +/- 16 microM for a 20 minute reaction). The dye does not alter the sites of the cyclization reaction, but it does increase the relative amount of reaction at a minor site 19 nucleotides from the 5' end of the IVS. The reversibility of the inhibition and the relative inhibitory strength of acridine orange, ethidium and proflavine suggest that inhibition is due to intercalation of the dye in functionally important secondary or tertiary structures of the IVS. The concentration of dye required to inhibit cyclization is much higher than expected from the known binding constants of such dyes to tRNA. At high Mg2+ to Na+ ratios, conditions which should stabilize RNA structure, a subpopulation of the IVS RNA molecules is resistant to ethidium inhibition, even at 200 microM ethidium. These data are interpreted as reflecting two conformational isomers of the IVS that differ in their reactivity and in their sensitivity to dye binding.