PCR amplification of template DNAs extracted from mixed, naturally occurring microbial populations, using oligonucleotide primers complementary to highly conserved sequences, was used to obtain a large collection of diverse RNase P RNA-encoding genes. An alignment of these sequences was used in a comparative analysis of RNase P RNA secondary and tertiary structure. The new sequences confirm the secondary structure model based on sequences from cultivated organisms (with minor alterations in helices P12 and P18), providing additional support for nearly every base pair. Analysis of sequence covariation using the entire RNase P RNA data set reveals elements of tertiary structure in the RNA; the third nucleotides (underlined) of the GNRA tetraloops L14 and L18 are seen to interact with adjacent Watson-Crick base pairs in helix P8, forming A:G/C or G:A/U base triples. These experiments demonstrate one way in which the enormous diversity of natural microbial populations can be used to elucidate molecular structure through comparative analysis.