In vitro selection techniques are useful means of dissecting the functions of both natural and artificial ribozymes. Using a self-cleaving conjugate containing the Escherichia coli ribonuclease P RNA and its substrate, pre-tRNA (Frank DN, Harris ME, Pace NR, 1994, Biochemistry 33:10800-10808), we have devised a method to select for catalytically active variants of the RNase P ribozyme. A selection experiment was performed to probe the structural and sequence constraints that operate on a highly conserved region of RNase P: the J3/4-P4-J2/4 region, which lies within the core of RNase P and is thought to bind catalytically essential magnesium ions (Harris ME et al., 1994, EMBO J 13:3953-3963; Hardt WD et al., 1995, EMBO J 14:2935-2944; Harris ME, Pace NR, 1995, RNA 1:210-218). We sought to determine which, if any, of the nearly invariant nucleotides within J3/4-P4-J2/4 are required for ribozyme-mediated catalysis. Twenty-two residues in the J3/4-P4-J2/4 component of RNase P RNA were randomized and, surprisingly, after only 10 generations, each of the randomized positions returned to the wild-type sequence. This indicates that every position in J3/4-P4-J2/4 contributes to optimal catalytic activity. These results contrast sharply with selections involving other large ribozymes, which evolve improved catalytic function readily in vitro (Chapman KB, Szostak JW, 1994, Curr Opin Struct Biol 4:618-622; Joyce GF, 1994, Curr Opin Struct Biol 4:331-336; Kumar PKR, Ellington AE, 1995, FASEB J 9:1183-1195). The phylogenetic conservation of J3/4-P4-J2/4, coupled with the results reported here, suggests that the contribution of this structure to RNA-mediated catalysis was optimized very early in evolution, before the last common ancestor of all life.