The 875 amino acid class II Escherichia coli alanine tRNA synthetase aminoacylates hairpin minihelices and miniduplexes comprising complementary base pairs that reconstruct the acceptor helix of alanine tRNA. Aminoacylation is dependent upon a G3:U70 base pair in the tRNA acceptor stem. A synthetic RNA miniduplex with a phosphorothioate internucleotide linkage on the 5'-side of U70 facilitated the stable attachment of a pendant benzophenone to the ribonucleotide backbone. The benzophenone-labeled duplex is active for aminoacylation. Irradiation of the labeled duplex produced a cross-linked RNA protein complex, in which the major site of RNA attachment is the segment between the class II defining sequence motifs 2 and 3. This segment spans a putative zinc-binding motif, which has been implicated in acceptor helix recognition, and is within a 461 amino acid N-terminal fragment that was recently shown to have full activity for minihelix aminoacylation. These results, together with the X-ray crystallographic investigations of the class II aspartate tRNA synthetase-tRNA(Asp) complex, suggest that the segment between motifs 2 and 3 in the 10 class II synthetases contributes generally to the docking of tRNA acceptor helices. The sequence diversity of this segment implies that its mode of interaction with the acceptor helix is idiosyncratic to the class II enzyme.