Replication of the ColE1 plasmid is regulated by the interaction of its primer RNA with a small countertranscript (RNA I) that acts as a repressor of functional primer formation. The interaction is dependent on the specific conformations of the complementary RNA molecules. Early in its synthesis, primer adopts an "anti-RNA I" configuration. As transcription proceeds, it is preempted by formation of an alternative domain designated stem-loop IV. This conformational transition has a significant effect on the rate of association of RNA I with the primer in vitro. Nascent primer in the "anti-RNA I" conformation (135 nucleotides) interacts with RNA I 6-fold faster than primer in the stem-loop IV conformation (241 nucleotides), and 35-fold faster than a 567 nucleotide primer precursor. We propose that a conformation-dependent "window of susceptibility" of primer to RNA I exists during primer transcription, and that altered conformations play a role in modulating the rate of functional primer formation.