Molecular probes are useful for both studying and controlling the functions of enzymes and other proteins. The most useful probes have high affinity for their target, along with small size and resistance to degradation. Here, we report on new surrogates for nucleic acids that fulfill these criteria. Isosteres in which phosphoryl [R-O-P(O-2-)-O-R'] groups are replaced with N-acylsulfonamidyl [R-C(O)-N--S(O-2)-R'] or sulfonimidyl [R-S(O-2)-N--S(O-2)-R'] groups increase the number of nonbridging oxygens from two (phosphoryl) to three (N-acylsulfonamidyl) or four (sulfonimidyl). Six such isosteres were found to be more potent inhibitors of catalysis by bovine pancreatic RNase A than are parent compounds containing phosphoryl groups. The atomic structures of two RNase A center dot N-acylsulfonamide complexes were determined at high resolution by X-ray crystallography. The N-acylsulfonamidyl groups were observed to form more hydrogen bonds with active site residues than did the phosphoryl groups in analogous complexes. These data encourage the further development and use of N-acylsulfonamides and sulfonimides as antagonists of nucleic acid-binding proteins.