Inhibition and substrate competition kinetics demonstrated that tRNA is a highly preferred substrate of thyroid alkaline RNase. The pyrimidine-specific RNase cleaved poly(C) 2.8 x 10(5) faster than poly(U). kcat:K(M) ratios for tRNA and poly(C) based on molecular weights failed to predict preference when both were present. Competition experiments between poly(C) and tRNA revealed tRNA was a tight-binding competing substrate and the cytidylate residues in the 3'-CCA terminus to tRNA were preferred about 280:1 over those in poly(C). Poly(U) was competitive with tRNA. When poly(C) was the substrate, inhibition type by poly(G) depended on poly(G) concentration. Neither tRNA lacking its 3' terminal cytidylyl(3'-5')adenosine and terminating in a 2':3' cCMP residue, tRNA lacking its 3' terminal 5'AMP residue, guanosine, nor guanylyl(3'-5')guanylyl(3'-5')guanosine were inhibitors. Product inhibition by adenosine and 2':3' cCMP showed the kinetic mechanism for cleavage of tRNA was ordered uni bi.