Retroviruses and long terminal repeat-containing retroelements use host- encoded tRNAs as primers for the synthesis of minus strong-stop DNA, the first intermediate in reverse transcription of the retroelement RNA. Usually, one or more specific tRNAs, including the primer, are selected and packaged within the virion. The reverse transcriptase (RT) interacts with the primer tRNA and initiates DNA synthesis. The structural and sequence features of primer tRNAs important for these specific interactions are poorly understood. We have developed a genetic assay in which mutants of tRNA(i)/(Met), the primer for the Ty1 retrotransposon of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, can be tested for the ability to serve as primers in the reverse transcription process. This system allows any tRNA mutant to be tested, regardless of its ability to function in the initiation of protein synthesis. We find that mutations in the TΨC loop and the acceptor stem regions of the tRNA(i)/(Met) affect transposition most severely. Conversely, mutations in the anticodon region have only minimal effects on transposition. Further study of the acceptor stem and other mutants demonstrates that complementarity to the element primer binding site is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for effective tRNA priming. Finally, we have used interspecies hybrid initiator tRNA molecules to implicate nucleotides in the D arm as additional recognition determinants. Ty3 and Ty1, two very distantly related retrotransposons, require similar molecular determinants in this primer tRNA for transposition.