Several ribozyme constructs have been used to dissect aspects of the group I self-splicing reaction. The Tetrahymena L-21 ScaI ribozyme, the best studied of these intron analogues, catalyzes a reaction analogous to the first step of self-splicing, in which a 5'-splice site analogue (S) and guanosine (G) are converted into a 5'-exon analogue (P) and GA. This ribozyme preserves the active site but lacks a short 5'-terminal segment (called the IGS extension herein) that forms dynamic helices, called the P1 extension and P10 helix. The P1 extension forms at the 5'-splice site in the first step of self-splicing, and P10 forms at the 3'-splice site in the second step of self-splicing. To dissect the contributions from the IGS extension and the helices it forms, we have investigated the effects of each of these elements at each reaction step. These experiments were performed with the L-16 ScaI ribozyme, which retains the IGS extension, and with 5'- and 3'-splice site analogues that differ in their ability to form the helices. The presence of the IGS extension strengthens binding of P by 40-fold, even when no new base pairs are formed. This large effect was especially surprising, as binding of S is essentially unaffected for S analogues that do not form additional base pairs with the IGS extension. Analysis of a U.U pair immediately 3' to the cleavage site suggests that a previously identified deleterious effect from a dangling U residue on the L-21 ScaI ribozyme arises from a fortuitous active site interaction and has implications for RNA tertiary structure specificity. Comparisons of the affinities of 5'-splice site analogues that form only a subset of base pairs reveal that inclusion of the conserved G.U base pair at the cleavage site of group I introns destabilizes the P1 extension >100-fold relative to the stability of a helix with all Watson-Crick base pairs. Previous structural data with model duplexes and the recent intron structures suggest that this effect can be attributed to partial unstacking of the P1 extension at the G.U step. These results suggest a previously unrecognized role of the G.U wobble pair in self-splicing: breaking cooperativity in base pair formation between P1 and the P1 extensions. This effect may facilitate replacement of the P1 extension with P10 after the first chemical step of self-splicing and release of the ligated exons after the second step of self-splicing.