Complexes of different electrophoretic mobility containing the stem-loop binding protein, a 45 kDa protein, bound to the stem-loop at the 3' end of histone mRNA, are present in both nuclear and cytoplasmic extracts from mammalian cells. We have determined the effect of changes in the loop, in the stem and in the flanking sequences on the affinity of the SLBP for the 3' end of histone mRNA. The sequence of the stem is particularly critical for SLBP binding. Specific sequences both 5' and 3' of the stem-loop are also required for high-affinity binding. Expanding the four base loop by one or two uridines reduced but did not abolish SLBP binding. RNA footprinting experiments show that the flanking sequences on both sides of the stem-loop are critical for efficient binding, but that cleavages in the loop do not abolish binding. Thus all three regions of the RNA sequence contribute to SLBP binding, suggesting that the 26 nt at the 3' end of histone mRNA forms a defined tertiary structure recognized by the SLBP.