In vivo selection was used to improve the activity of the Tetrahymena pre-rRNA self-splicing intron in the context of heterologous exons. The intron was engineered into a kanamycin nucleotidyltransferase gene, with the pairing between intron bases and the 5′ and 3′ splice sites maintained. The initial construct failed to confer kanamycin resistance on Escherichia coli, although the pre-mRNA was active in splicing in vitro. Random mutation libraries were constructed to identify active intron variants in E. coli. All the active mutants sequenced contained mutations disrupting a base-paired region above the paired region P1 (referred to as the P1 extension region or P1ex) that involves the very 5′ end of the intron. Subsequent site-directed mutagenesis confirmed that these P1ex mutations are responsible and sufficient to activate the intron splicing in E. coli. Thus, it appears that too strong of a secondary structure in the P1ex element can be inhibitory to splicing in vivo. In vitro splicing assays demonstrated that two P1ex mutant constructs splice six to eight times faster than the designed construct at 40 μM GTP concentration. The relative reaction rates of the mutant constructs compared to the original design are further increased at a lower GTP concentration. Possible mechanisms by which the disrupted P1ex structure could influence splicing rates are discussed. This study emphasizes the value of using libraries of random mutations to improve the activity of ribozymes in heterologous contexts in vivo.