A DNA plasmid encoding the first 101 amino acid residues of the Xenopus 5 S RNA gene-specific transcription factor IIIA (TFIIIA) was derived by polymerase chain reaction amplification of this region from the cDNA for TFIIIA. This polypeptide includes the first three zinc fingers of the TFIIIA DNA binding domain. The polypeptide was expressed in Escherichia coli and purified to greater than 95% homogeneity. The three finger polypeptide binds the internal control region of the 5 S RNA gene with sequence specificity and high affinity. Binding is metal-dependent and treatment of the polypeptide with EDTA abolishes binding. Polypeptide-DNA complexes exhibit a dissociation constant of 5.6(+/- 0.9) nM, while that for full-length Xenopus TFIIIA is 2.2(+/- 0.4) nM, measured under the same conditions. This suggests that the majority of the free energy of TFIIIA binding resides in these amino-terminal zinc fingers. The polypeptide protects 21 base-pairs of the internal control region from attack by DNase I, with protection from nucleotides +75 to +95 of the 120 base-pair gene. This region includes the C-block promoter element and several guanine residues that are essential for TFIIIA binding. Methylation interference experiments suggest that the mode of binding of the polypeptide and TFIIIA are similar. The minimal DNA sequences required for polypeptide binding were determined using a series of synthetic double-stranded deoxyribo-oligonucleotides. A 13 base-pair oligonucleotide spanning nucleotides +80 to +92 of the 5 S RNA gene retained specific and high-affinity binding, although the latter was reduced sixfold relative to longer DNA fragments. Polypeptides containing fingers 1 and 2, or fingers 2, 3 and 4 of TFIIIA do not exhibit sequence-specific DNA binding. Overall, these studies provide strong support for a model in which the first three zinc fingers of TFIIIA bind with high affinity between nucleotides +80 and +92 of the internal control region of the 5 S RNA gene.