Aminoacyl tRNA synthetases discriminate between tRNA species by a highly specific mechanism. Physical and chemical studies indicate that the synthetases bind along and around the inside of the three-dimensional L-shaped tRNA structure. Studies of mutant tRNAs that affect synthetase interaction tend to confirm this conclusion. However, in contrast to proteins that recognize a specific block of contiguous nucleotide units (e.g., repressors, restriction enzymes, etc.), synthetases appear to interact with spatially disperse elements of the structure. Available evidence suggests that tRNA binding clefts on various synthetases may be roughly similar, with specificity being achieved by the choice of amino acid residues in a few critical positions in the tRNA binding clefts. With this idea in mind, it should be possible to introduce amino acid substitutions into the binding clefts and thereby change tRNA recognition specificity. This has been attempted (by genetic manipulations) and a mutant alanine tRNA synthetase with altered tRNA recognition has been isolated. This enzyme can attach alanine to isoleucine specific tRNA. When presented with valine specific tRNA, a tRNA similar in some structural features to the isoleucine specific tRNA, or with the structurally quite different tyrosine specific tRNA, no significant aminoacylation occurs. Thus, a precise specificity alteration can occur through mutation; this result supports the idea of similarities in synthetase binding clefts, with specificity being achieved by the positioning of amino acids at critical positions in these clefts. Finally, further data have been obtained on the issue of possible transient covalent bond formation between synthetases and tRNAs, as a critical part of the interaction.