The genetic code is based on the aminoacylation of tRNA with amino acids catalyzed by the aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases. The synthetases are constructed from discrete domains and all synthetases possess a core catalytic domain that catalyzes amino acid activation, binds the acceptor stem of tRNA, and transfers the amino acid to tRNA. Fused to the core domain are additional domains that mediate RNA interactions distal to the acceptor stem. Several synthetases catalyze the aminoacylation of RNA oligonucleotide substrates that recreate only the tRNA acceptor stems. In one case, a relatively small catalytic domain catalyzes the aminoacylation of these substrates independent of the rest of the protein. Thus, the active site domain may represent a primordial synthetase in which polypeptide insertions that mediate RNA acceptor stem interactions are tightly integrated with determinants for aminoacyl adenylate synthesis. The relationship between nucleotide sequences in small RNA oligonucleotides and the specific amino acids that are attached to these oligonucleotides could constitute a second genetic code.