In growing yeast cells, about half of the 150 tandemly repeated rRNA genes are transcriptionally active and devoid of nucleosomes. By using the intercalating drug psoralen as a tool to mark accessible sites along chromatin DNA in vivo, we found that the active rRNA gene copies are rather randomly distributed along the ribosomal rRNA gene locus. Moreover, results from the analysis of a single, tagged transcription unit in the tandem array are not consistent with the presence of a specific subset of active genes that is stably maintained throughout cell divisions. In the rRNA intergenic spacers of yeast cells, an enhancer is located at the 3' end of each transcription unit, 2 kb upstream of the next promoter. Analysis of the chromatin structure along the tandem array revealed a structural link between transcription units and adjacent, 3' flanking enhancer sequences: each transcriptionally active gene is flanked by a nonnucleosomal enhancer, whereas inactive, nucleosome-packed gene copies are followed by enhancers regularly packaged in nucleosomes. From the fact that nucleosome-free enhancers were also detected in an RNA polymerase I mutant strain, we interpret these open chromatin structures as being the result of specific protein-DNA interactions that can occur before the onset of transcription. In contrast, in this mutant strain, all of the rRNA coding sequences are packaged in nucleosomal arrays. This finding indicates that the establishment of the open chromatin conformation on the activated gene copies requires elongating RNA polymerase I molecules advancing through the template.