We used human tRNA(Tyr) precursor as a substrate to study self-excision of a pre-tRNA intron. This RNA was synthesized in vitro in a HeLa cell extract. It contains a 5' leader, an intron of 20 nucleotides and a 3' trailer. Self-cleavage of pre-tRNA(Tyr) occurs in 100 mM NH4OAc at a pH ranging from 6 to 8.5 in the presence of spermine, MgCl2 and Triton X-100 under conditions very similar to enzymatic intron excision. The reaction is temperature-dependent, relatively fast as compared to the enzyme-catalysed reaction and leads to fragments which resist further degradation. The detailed structure of all major and minor cleavage products was established by fingerprint analyses. Non-enzymatic cleavage occurs predominantly at the 3' splice site and to a minor extent at the 5' splice site. Other minor cleavage sites are located within the intron and in the 3' trailer. Putative 5' and 3' tRNA halves resulting from pre-tRNA(Tyr) self-cleavage are substrates for wheat germ RNA ligase, suggesting that the cleavage reaction yields 2',3'-cyclic phosphate and 5'-hydroxyl termini. Pre-tRNA splicing endonuclease is believed to cleave both the 5' and the 3' splice site. However, on the basis of our results we propose that this enzyme may support the formation of a pre-tRNA tertiary structure favourable for autocatalytic intron excision and impair unspecific self-cleavage.