The Bacillus stearothermophilus ribosomal protein S15 (BS15) binds a purine-rich three-helix junction motif in the central domain of 16S ribosomal RNA (rRNA) as well as a translational operator located in the 5'-untranslated region (5'-UTR) of its cognate messenger RNA (mRNA). An in-frame fusion between the 5'-UTR of the BS15 gene and beta-galactosidase (lacZ) was prepared, and tested for BS15-dependent translational repression of lacZ activity in Escherichia coli. The presence of BS15 in trans represses lacZ activity 24-fold. A series of detailed point mutations in BS15 were tested for their effects upon translational repression of lacZ activity. These point mutations demonstrated that the 5'-UTR-BS15 binding interface utilizes many of the same conserved amino acid residues implicated in the binding of BS15 to 16S rRNA. The data demonstrate that the S15 protein can bind to an RNA target motif based primarily upon appropriate minor groove and sugar-phosphate backbone contacts, irrespective of the specific RNA sequence.