When designed to cleave a target RNA in trans, the hammerhead ribozyme contains two antisense flanks which form helix I and helix III by pairing with the complementary target RNA. The sequences forming helix II are contained on the ribozyme strand and represent a major structural component of the hammerhead structure. In the case of an inhibitory 429 nucleotides long trans-ribozyme (2as-Rz12) which was directed against the 5′-leader/gag region of the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), helix II was not pre-formed in the single-stranded molecule. Thus, major structural changes are necessary before cleavage can occur. To study whether pre-formation of helix II in the non-paired 2as-Rz12 RNA could influence the observed cleavage rate in vitro and its inhibitory activity on HIV-1 replication, we extended the 4 base pair helix II of 2as-Rz12 to 6,10, 21, and 22 base pairs respectively. Limited RNase cleavage reactions performed in vitro at 37°C and at physiological ion strength indicated that a helix II of the hammerhead domain was pre-formed when its length was at least six base pairs. This modification neither affected the association rate with target RNA nor the cleavage rate in vitro. In contrast to this, extension of helix II led to a significantly decreased inhibition of HIV-1 replication in human cells. Together with the finding of others that shortening of helix II to less than two base pairs reduces the catalytic activity in vitro, this observation indicates that the length of helix II in the naturally occurring RNAs with a hammerhead domain is already close or identical to the optimal length for catalytic activity in vitro and in vivo.