The stabilities of eight triple helical pyrimidine.purine.pyrimidine structures comprised of identical sequence but different RNA (R) or DNA (D) strand combinations were measured by quantitative affinity cleavage titration. The differences in equilibrium binding affinities reveal the importance of strand composition. For the sequences studied here, the stabilities of complexes containing a pyrimidine third strand D or R and purine.pyrimidine double helical DD, DR, RD, and RR decrease in order: D + DD, R + DD, R + DR, D + DR > R + RD, R + RR >> D + RR, D + RD (pH 7.0, 25 degrees C, 100 mM NaCl/1 mM spermine). These findings suggest that RNA and DNA oligonucleotides will be useful for targeting (i) double helical DNA and (ii) RNA.DNA hybrids if the purine Watson-Crick strand is DNA. However, RNA, but not DNA, oligonucleotides will be useful for sequence-specific binding of (i) double helical RNA and (ii) RNA.DNA hybrids if the purine Watson-Crick strand is RNA. This has implications for the design of artificial ligands targeted to specific sequences of double helical RNA and RNA.DNA hybrids.