A randomly generated mutation in Escherichia coli alanine tRNA synthetase compensates for a mutation in its cognate tRNA. The enzyme's mutation occurs next to a Cys-X2-Cys-X6-His-X2-His metal-binding motif that is distinct from the zinc finger motif found in some DNA-binding proteins. Instead, the synthetase's metal binding domain resembles the Cys-X2-Cys-X4-His-X4-Cys metal-binding domain of the gag gene product of retroviruses. For Ala-tRNA synthetase, the metal bound at the Cys-His motif is important specifically for the tRNA-dependent step of catalysis, and the enzyme-tRNA interaction is dependent on the geometry of metal co-ordination to the enzyme. These data, and the demonstrated sensitivity of RNA packaging to mutations in the metal-binding domain of the gag gene product of retroviruses, suggest that an aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase and retroviruses have adopted a related metal-binding motif for RNA recognition.