We have used an in vivo system generating assayable amounts of a specific pre-mRNA to study the relationship between splicing and an operationally defined nuclear matrix preparation (NM). When NM is prepared by extraction of DNase I-treated nuclei with an approximately physiological concentration of KCl (0.1 M), a portion of NM-associated precursor can be spliced in vitro in the presence of ATP and Mg2+ and in the absence of splicing extract ("autonomous splicing"). We propose that the autonomous reaction, which does not exhibit a temporal lag and is half-complete in 5 min, occurs in fully assembled, matrix-bound ribonucleoprotein complexes (in vivo spliceosomes). Extraction of the NM with concentrations of KCl greater than 0.4 M eliminates autonomous splicing but leaves behind preassembled complexes that can be complemented for splicing with HeLa cell nuclear extract. The splicing complementing factor, representing one or more activities present in the nuclear extract and also in the cytoplasmic S100 fraction, is relatively heat resistant, devoid of an RNA component, and does not bind to DEAE-Sepharose in 0.1 M KCl. It exists in the nucleus in two forms; bound to autonomous spliceosomes and free in the nucleoplasm. Biochemical features of the complementation reaction, and conditions for reversible uncoupling of the two splicing steps are described and discussed.