In the chromatin of Dictyostelium ribosomal RNA (rRNA) genes, the coding and upstream flanking regions are sensitive to endonucleases. This sensitivity stops about 2.3 x 10(3) bases upstream from the transcription start, at a point we call the structural boundary. Upstream from the boundary an 850 base-pair region is strongly protected against micrococcal nuclease cleavage, particularly in rapidly transcribing vegetative cells, and upstream from this the pattern of nuclease protection suggests that positioned nucleosomes are present. On the gene side of the structural boundary nucleosomes are known to be absent in vegetative cells but present in differentiating slug cells where the rRNA synthesis rate is lower. We show that in slugs these nucleosomes are randomly distributed, in contrast to those upstream from the boundary. Close to the gene side of the boundary is a duplication of the putative promoter located 29 base-pairs distant from four clustered topoisomerase I recognition sequences, which are cleaved by endogenous topoisomerase I-like activity. An additional topoisomerase I recognition sequence found upstream from the structural boundary is not cleaved in chromatin. The possible significance of these sequences and structures in transcription is discussed.