Covalently closed circular (+) RNA of the potato spindle tuber viroid (PSTVd) can efficiently dimerize noncovalently upon heating and slow cooling in the presence of monovalent cations or Mg2+. In vitro transcription of subgenomic fragments reveals that the ability to dimerize resides in the "upper strand" of its self-complementary rod-like structure. Nuclease probing of these fragments, namely, molecules spanning either the upper or the lower strand of PSTVd, confirms the existence of the previously proposed hairpins I-III, of which hairpin I might contain noncanonical G.A and A.A base pairs. In addition, the upper and lower (+) strands contain large hairpin loops consisting of stretches rich in either adenosine or uridine. Dimerization of the upper (+) strand results in a nuclease-resistant core encompassing hairpin I and is inhibited by an antisense oligonucleotide spanning the entire hairpin; this palindromic domain thus represents the dimerization site. When upper and lower strands were heated and cooled together, no annealing to a viroid-like duplex of both molecules occurs, only dimerization of the upper strand. Therefore, the dimerization hairpin of viroid RNA represents a unique conformational signal that is homologous to similar regions in the human immunodeficiency virus and other retroviruses.