Variants of the hammerhead ribozyme with high in trans (intermolecular) cleavage activity at low Mg(2+) concentrations were in vitro selected from a library with 18 nucleotides randomised in the core and in helix II. The most active hammerhead ribozyme selected had the same sequence as the consensus ribozyme in the core but only two base pairs in stem II, G(10.1)-C(11.1) and U(10.2)-A(11.2), and a tetrauridine loop II. This ribozyme (clone 34) was found to be very active in single-turnover reactions at 1 mM Mg(2+) concentration in the context of several substrates with differences in the lengths of stem I and III, including the well-characterised HH16 substrate and a derivative thereof with a GUA triplet at the cleavage site, as well as a substrate used previously in a related study. For the HH16 substrate, a change of base pair 10.2-11.2 to C-G in stem II further improved activity by about 2.5-fold to 0.8 min(-1) (at 1 mM Mg(2+) concentration, 25 degrees C, pH 7.5). Interestingly, this very active variant was not identified by the selection procedure. Changing loop II from UUUU to GCAA or extension of stem II to three or four base pairs reduced the cleavage rate by 2.0-2.5-fold. Thus, small hammerhead ribozymes carrying a tetrauridine loop with two base pairs in stem II represent the most active versions known so far at low Mg(2+) concentrations; single-turnover rates of approximately 1 min(-1) are reached at 25 degrees C and pH 7.5 in monophasic reactions, with endpoints between 75 and 90 %. Such constructs promise to be advantageous for the inhibition of gene expression in vivo.