Protein factor rho catalyzes site-specific termination of transcription in a reaction requiring hydrolysis of nucleoside triphosphate with eventual release of RNA from RNA polymerase and DNA template. We have characterized the rho-catalyzed RNA release reaction using isolated transcription complexes. Transcription complexes containing T7 D111 DNA, RNA polymerase, and 3H-labeled nascent RNA were formed and isolated by gel filtration on an Agarose 5M column. When the ternary complexes were incubated with rho factor in the presence of ATP or dATP, significant amounts of nascent RNA were released from the complexes as determined in a membrane filtration assay. Gel electrophoretic analysis of RNA has revealed that rho releases selected species of discrete-sized RNA from among those originally present in the ternary complexes. These results show that rho essentially acts to release RNA from those ternary complexes which have come to pause, and that this reaction proceeds in a discrete step separately from the pausing of RNA synthesis. Under the conditions used, the extent of RNA release widely varied at individual pausing sites and thus the action of rho exhibited certain site-selectivity.