RNA helical oligonucleotides that recapitulate the acceptor stems of transfer RNAs, and that are devoid of the anticodon trinucleotides of the genetic code, are aminoacylated by aminoacyl tRNA synthetases. The specificity of aminoacylation is sequence dependent, and both specificity and efficiency are generally determined by only a few nucleotides proximal to the amino acid attachment site. This sequence/structure-dependent aminoacylation of RNA oligonucleotides constitutes an operational RNA code for amino acids. To a rough approximation, members of the two different classes of tRNA synthetases are, like tRNAs, organized into two major domains. The class-defining conserved domain containing the active site incorporates determinants for recognition of RNA mini-helix substrates. This domain may reflect the primordial synthetase, which was needed for expression of the operational RNA code. The second synthetase domain, which generally is less or not conserved, provides for interactions with the second domain of tRNA, which incorporates the anticodon. The emergence of the genetic from the operational RNA code could occur when the second domain of synthetases was added with the anticodon-containing domain of tRNAs.