The genetic code is determined by both the specificity of the triplet anticodon of tRNAs for codons in mRNAs and the specificity with which tRNAs are charged with amino acids. The latter depends on interactions between tRNAs and their charging enzymes, and an advance in understanding such interactions was provided recently by the demonstration that a major determinant of the identity of alanine tRNA is located in the amino-acid acceptor helix. Multiple substitutions in many distinct parts of the molecule do not prevent aminoacylation with alanine. Substitution of the G3.U70 base pair with G3.C70 or A3.U70 in the acceptor helix prevents aminoacylation in vivo and in vitro, however, and the introduction of this base pair into tRNA(Cys) (ref. 1) or tRNA(Phe) (refs 1, 2) enables both to accept alanine. The importance of a single base pair in the acceptor helix and the results of recent footprinting experiments promoted us to investigate the possibility that a minihelix, composed only of the amino-acid acceptor-T psi C helix, could be a substrate for alanine tRNA synthetase. We show here that a synthetic hairpin minihelix can be enzymatically aminoacylated with alanine. Alanine incorporation requires a single G.U base pair, and occurs in helices that otherwise differ significantly in sequence. Aminoacylation can be achieved with only seven base pairs in the helix.