The chromatin structure of the Xenopus oocyte-specific 5S rRNA genes was examined at high resolution in immature oocyte and somatic cell chromosomes by DNase I footprinting. On oocyte chromatin, where the genes are active, the cleavage preferences over the entire gene region showed a periodic pattern of sensitivity and were dramatically different from the patterns obtained with deproteinized DNA or somatic cell chromatin. Further, the normal binding site for TFIIIA over the internal promoter region was preferentially sensitive to cleavage, indicating that TFIIIA was not bound in the manner predicted by in vitro experiments. In somatic cell chromatin, the oocyte-type 5S genes displayed a cleavage pattern largely similar to deproteinized DNA suggesting the absence of positioned nucleosomes on these inactive genes, although the presence of uncharacterized repressor complexes could not be ruled out. These data are discussed in terms of potential forms of the chromatin structure and alternative mechanisms of oocyte-type gene activation.