Erythrocyte protein 4.1 is an 78- to 80-Kd peripheral membrane protein that promotes the interaction of spectrin with actin protofilaments and links the resulting interlocking network to the integral membrane proteins. There are several isoforms of protein 4.1 that appear to be expressed in a restricted group of tissues. These arise from alternative mRNA splicing events that lead to the combinational insertion or deletion of at least 10 blocks of nucleotides (motifs) within the mature mRNA. One of these, motif I, consists of 63 nucleotides encoding 21 amino acids in the N-terminal region of the putative spectrin/actin-binding domain. The expression of the motif U- containing isoform occurs late in erythroid maturation. We generated recombinant isoforms of protein 4.1 and of the putative 10-Kd spectrin/actin-binding fragment that contain or lack this 21 amino acid sequence and examined their ability to form a ternary complex with erythrocyte spectrin and F-actin. The isoforms of the complete protein and of the 10-Kd fragment that contain the sequence encoded by motif I efficiently form the ternary complex. Isoforms that lack this sequence, but are otherwise identical, do not participate in the formation of the ternary complex. These results, in conjunction with the expression of motif I during late erythroid maturation, suggest that interaction with actin and the erythroid form of spectrin is a specialized property of the erythrocyte form of protein 4.1. Alternative mRNA splicing in developing red blood cells thus plays a key adaptive role in the formation of the highly specialized erythrocyte membrane.