Background: The repertoire of the antigen-binding receptors originates from the rearrangement of immunoglobulin and T-cell receptor genetic loci in a process known as V(D)J recombination. The initial site-specific DNA cleavage steps of this process are catalyzed by the lymphoid specific proteins RAG1 and RAG2. The majority of studies on RAG1 and RAG2 have focused on the minimal, core regions required for catalytic activity. Though not absolutely required, non-core regions of RAG1 and RAG2 have been shown to influence the efficiency and fidelity of the recombination reaction. Results: Using a partial proteolysis approach in combination with bioinformatics analyses, we identified the domain boundaries of a structural domain that is present in the 380-residue N-terminal non-core region of RAG1. We term this domain the Central Non-core Domain (CND; residues 87-217). Conclusions: We show how the CND alone, and in combination with other regions of non-core RAG1, functions in nuclear localization, zinc coordination, and interactions with nucleic acid. Together, these results demonstrate the multiple roles that the non-core region can play in the function of the full length protein. © 2011 Arbuckle et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.