U1 small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs) are required for in vitro splicing of pre-mRNA. Sequences within U1 RNA hybridize to, and thus recognize, 5' splice junctions. We have investigated the mechanism of association of U1 snRNPs with the spliceosome. U1-specific antibodies detected U1 association with precursor RNA early during assembly. Removal of the 5' terminal sequences of U1 RNA by oligo-directed cleavage or removal of U1 snRNPs by immunoprecipitation prior to the addition of precursor RNA depressed the association of all snRNPs with precursor RNA as detected by immunoprecipitation of splicing complexes by either Sm or U1-specific antibodies. Assembly of the spliceosome as monitored by gel electrophoresis was also depressed after cleavage of U1 RNA. The dependency of Sm precipitability of precursor RNA upon the presence of U1 snRNPs suggests that U1 snRNPs participate in the early recognition of substrate RNAs by U2 to U6 snRNPs. Although removal of the 5'-terminal sequences of U1 depressed U1 snRNP association with precursor RNA, it did not eliminate it, suggesting semistable association of U1 snRNPs with the assembling spliceosome in the absence of U1 RNA hybridization. This association was not dependent upon 5' splice junction sequences but was dependent upon 3' intronic sequences, indicating that U1 snRNPs interact with factors recognizing 3' intronic sequences. Mutual dependence of 5' and 3' recognition factors suggests significant snRNP-snRNP communication during early assembly.