RNA-protein complexes isolated following a gel retardation assay can be footprinted within the gel matrix using the chemical nuclease activities of 4,7-dimethyl-, 5,6-dimethyl-, and 3,4,7,8-tetramethyl-1,10-phenanthroline-copper. These complexes are more reactive than 1,10-phenanthroline-copper but share its reaction preference for bulges and loops. The interaction of the coat protein of R-17 with its viral RNA target and tat- and tat-derived peptides with HIV TAR RNA have been studied. In both cases, the RNA sequence opposite a 2-3 nucleotide bulge are protected. Tat-derived peptides inhibit cleavage at sites which intact tat does not protect. These results are consistent with transcription studies which have suggested that truncation of tat increases nonspecific binding.