The iron responsive element (IRE) is a conserved RNA structure that is found in the 5' UTR of ferritin mRNA and in the 3' UTR of transferrin receptor mRNA. It is the binding site of the iron responsive protein (IRP), and the interaction is part of the regulation of cellular iron metabolism. The IRE six-nucleotide hairpin loop, 5'C1A2G3U4G5N6, is conserved in sequence, and mutations have shown that it is required for IRP binding. On the basis of the thermodynamic and NMR experiments utilized here, the IRE loop structure 5'C1A2G3U4G5N6, is described in detail. Measurements of loop stability show that it has 2.9 kcal/mol more free energy than predicted. NMR datu suggest that there is hydrogen bonding between C1 and G5 in a tertiary interaction across the loop. A model structure, produced by MC- SYM/energy minimization, illustrates the conformational flexibility of U4 and C6, which appear to exhibit considerable local motion in solution. NMR data indicate that the position of G3 is not well defined, leading to two families of loop structures.