Modulation of gene expression by catalytic RNA requires accessible ribozyme cleavage sites in the target mRNA, and accessibility is determined by the secondary and tertiary structure of the target RNA, as affected by its interactions with cellular proteins. As we previously reported, an oligonucleotide-scanning approach using antisense oligonucleotides can be used to determine RNA accessibility in cell extracts. To test whether this method can be used to improve selection of ribozyme target sites, we designed ribozymes corresponding to the sites identified by oligonucleotide scanning and have evaluated their catalytic activities, first in cell extracts and then in transduced cell lines. As a target we used the mRNA of murine DNA (cytosine-5)-methyltransferase 1 (MTase). For intracellular studies, the ribozyme genes were inserted downstream of a Pol III tRNAVAL promoter, which in turn was cloned in the U3 region of a retroviral vector. We find that the efficiency of the ribozymes both in cell extracts and in vivo corresponds with the relative effectiveness predicted by the oligonucleotide-scanning assay. The best ribozyme causes a 70-80% reduction in the MTase mRNA levels in NIH 3T3 cells that are stably transduced with the retroviral constructs. This reduction in mRNA levels is accompanied by a small decrease in the methylation of repetitive intercisternal A particle DNA elements. Ribozyme expression also increased several-fold the reactivation frequency of a methylation-silenced green fluorescent protein (GFP) transgene. Both the reduction in methylation and reactivation of GFP were roughly equivalent to the effects obtained by treating NIH 3T3 cells with 2.5 microM 5-azacytidine, which gives an effect of about 10% of maximum. These results confirm the validity of the cell extract approach for ribozyme site selection and provide a potentially useful ribozyme for future study of DNA methyltransferase function.