A two-site model for the binding of U1 small nuclear ribonucleoprotein particle (U1 snRNP) was tested in order to understand how exon partners are selected in complex pre-mRNAs containing alternative exons. In this model, it is proposed that two U1 snRNPs define a functional unit of splicing by base pairing to the 3' boundary of the downstream exon as well as the 5' boundary of the intron to be spliced. Three-exon substrates contained the alternatively spliced exon 4 (E4) region of the preprotachykinin gene. Combined 5' splice site mutations at neighboring exons demonstrate that weakened binding of U1 snRNP at the downstream site and improved U1 snRNP binding at the upstream site result in the failure to rescue splicing of the intron between the mutations. These results indicate the stringency of the requirement for binding a second U1 snRNP to the downstream 5' splice site for these substrates as opposed to an alternative model in which a certain threshold level of U1 snRNP can be provided at either site. Further support for the two-site model is provided by single-site mutations in the 5' splice site of the third exon, E5, that weaken base complementarity to U1 RNA. These mutations block E5 branchpoint formation and, surprisingly, generate novel branchpoints that are specified chiefly by their proximity to a cryptic 5' splice site located at the 3' terminus of the pre-mRNA. The experiments shown here demonstrate a true stimulation of 3' splice site activity by the downstream binding of U1 snRNP and suggest a possible mechanism by which combinatorial patterns of exon selection are achieved for alternatively spliced pre-mRNAs.