RNA ligases have essential roles in many cellular processes in eukaryotes, archaea and bacteria, including in RNA repair1,2and stress-induced splicing of messenger RNA3. In archaea and eukaryotes, RNA ligases also have a role in transfer RNA splicing to generate functional tRNAs required for protein synthesis4,5,6,7. We recently identified the human tRNA splicing ligase, a multimeric protein complex with RTCB (also known as HSPC117, C22orf28, FAAP and D10Wsu52e) as the essential subunit8. The functions of the additional complex components ASW (also known as C2orf49), CGI-99 (also known as C14orf166), FAM98B and the DEAD-box helicase DDX1 in the context of RNA ligation have remained unclear. Taking advantage of clusters of eukaryotic orthologous groups, here we find that archease (ARCH; also known as ZBTB8OS), a protein of unknown function, is required for full activity of the human tRNA ligase complex and, in cooperation with DDX1, facilitates the formation of an RTCB–guanylate intermediate central to mammalian RNA ligation. Our findings define a role for DDX1 in the context of the human tRNA ligase complex and suggest that the widespread co-occurrence of archease and RtcB proteins implies evolutionary conservation of their functional interplay.