The gag genes of retroviruses encode nucleocapsid proteins that package genomic RNA and are essential for viral infectivity. These RNA binding proteins have a Cys-Xaa2-Cys-Xaa4-His-Xaa4-Cys zinc binding motif that is distinct from the typical zinc-finger motif Cys-Xaa2-Cys-Xaa12-14-His-Xaa2-His that is found in some transcriptional activators. Escherichia coli alanyl-tRNA synthetase contains a zinc-binding Cys-Xaa2-Cys-Xaa6-His-Xaa2-His motif that resembles that of retroviral nucleic acid binding proteins. We show here that, for alanyl-tRNA synthetase, the metal bound at the retroviral-like metal binding motif is important specifically for tRNA recognition and not for amino acid activation. Moreover, the enzyme-tRNA interaction is strongly dependent on the geometry of metal coordination to the protein. These and additional experiments collectively suggest a role for the retroviral-like metal binding motif in RNA recognition and, further, raise the possibility that the protein-bound metal itself participates in an RNA interaction.