The natural RNA enzymes catalyse phosphate-group transfer and peptide-bond formation. Initially, metal ions were proposed to supply the chemical versatility that nucleotides lack. In the ensuing decades, structural and mechanistic studies have substantially altered this initial viewpoint. Whereas self-splicing ribozymes clearly rely on essential metal-ion cofactors, self-cleaving ribozymes seem to use nucleotide bases for their catalytic chemistry. Despite the overall differences in chemical features, both RNA and protein enzymes use similar catalytic strategies.