Many of the mammalian mitochondrial tRNAs contain significant nucleotide deletions in the dihydrouridine (D) stem or T psi C stem, so that they cannot fold into the canonical cloverleaf structure. This suggests that alternative forms and shapes are possible for a mitochondrial tRNA that functions in the specialized translational apparatus of the mammalian mitochondria. The question of whether significant structural alterations may be accommodated by a bacterial protein synthesis machinery, such as in Escherichia coli, is unanswered. In this work, all but ten positions in the gene for the 76-nucleotide coding sequence of an E. coli amber suppressor tRNA were permuted and screened for biological activity in vivo. Sequence analysis of a collection of biologically active variants established that many have unusual structures that include base-pair mismatches in helical stems, substitutions of normally conserved bases, and deletions. Independent mutations were obtained that weaken base pairs or tertiary interactions that normally stabilize the coaxial stacking of the D and anticodon stems, suggesting that the translational apparatus can accommodate considerable flexibility in this part of the molecule. The results demonstrate the capacity of the bacterial protein synthetic apparatus to accommodate altered tRNA structures that are not represented by any naturally occurring tRNAs.