Biochemical analysis of Escherichia coli ribosomes containing mutant 16S or 23S (r)ribosomal RNAs, produced via cloned rDNA genes on multicopy plasmids, has been hindered by the background of wild-type (wt) ribosomes containing host-derived rRNA. Here, we describe a method for the construction of unique priming sites in 16S rRNA that allow allele-specific structure probing of ribosomes containing plasmid-encoded RNA. Phenotypically silent mutations, designed to mimic related eubacterial sequences, have been introduced into four phylogenetically variable regions in the 16S rDNA gene that allow inspection of several 16S rRNA functional sites. When oligodeoxyribonucleotides complementary to these altered sequences are used to prime cDNA synthesis in primer extension reactions using reverse transcriptase, only plasmid-derived 16S rRNA is used as a template, thus rendering the wt background invisible. Unexpectedly, we were unable to introduce silent mutations into one nonconserved helix in 16S rRNA, suggesting that constraints in addition to Watson-Crick pairing are important in this region.