The structure of the 5.8 S ribosomal RNA in rat liver ribosomes was probed by comparing dimethyl sulfate-reactive sites in whole ribosomes, 60 S subunits, the 5.8 S-28 S rRNA complex and the free 5.8 S rRNA under conditions of salt and temperature that permit protein synthesis in vitro. Differences in reactive sites between the free and both the 28 S rRNA and 60 S subunit-associated 5.8 S rRNA show that significant conformational changes occur when the molecule interacts with its cognate 28 S rRNA and as the complex is further integrated into the ribosomal structure. These results indicate that, as previously suggested by phylogenetic comparisons of the secondary structure, only the "G + C-rich" stem may remain unaltered and a universal structure is probably present only in the whole ribosome or 60 S subunit. Further comparisons with the ribosome-associated molecule indicate that while the 5.8 S rRNA may be partly localized in the ribosomal interface, four cytidylic acid residues, C56, C100, C127 and C128, remain reactive even in whole ribosomes. In contrast, the cytidylic acid residues in the 5 S rRNA are not accessible in either the 60 S subunit or the intact ribosome. The nature of the structural rearrangements and potential sites of interaction with the 28 S rRNA and ribosomal proteins are discussed.