Posttranscriptional regulation of genes of mammalian iron metabolism is mediated by the interaction of iron regulatory proteins (IRPs) with RNA stem-loop sequence elements known as iron-responsive elements (IREs). There are two identified IRPs, IRP1 and IRP2, each of which binds consensus IREs present in eukaryotic transcripts with equal affinity. Site-directed mutagenesis of IRP1 and IRP2 reveals that, although the binding affinities for consensus IREs are indistinguishable, the contributions of arginine residues in the active-site cleft to the binding affinity are different in the two RNA binding sites. Furthermore, although each IRP binds the consensus IRE with high affinity, each IRP also binds a unique alternative ligand, which was identified in an in vitro systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment procedure. Differences in the two binding sites may be important in the function of the IRE-IRP regulatory system.