The Escherichia coli biotin holoenzyme synthetase, BirA, catalyzes transfer of biotin to the epsilon amino group of a specific lysine residue of the biotin carboxyl carrier protein (BCCP) subunit of acetyl-CoA carboxylase. Sequences of naturally biotinylated substrates are highly conserved across evolutionary boundaries, and cross-species biotinylation has been demonstrated in several systems. To define the minimal substrate requirements in BirA-catalyzed biotinylation, we have measured the kinetics of modification of a 23-residue peptide previously identified by combinatorial methods. Although the sequence of the peptide bears little resemblance to the biotinylated sequence in BCCP, it is enzymatically biotinylated in vivo. Rates of biotin transfer to the 23-residue peptide are similar to those determined for BCCP. To further elucidate the sequence requirements for biotinylation, transient kinetic measurements were performed on a series of amino- and carboxy-terminal truncations of the 23-mer. The results, determined by stopped-flow fluorescence, allowed identification of a 14-residue peptide as the minimum required sequence. Additional support was obtained using matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization time-of-flight (MALDI-TOF) mass spectrometric analysis of peptides that had been incubated with an excess of biotinyl-5'-adenylate intermediate and catalytic amounts of BirA. Results of these measurements indicate that while kinetically inactive truncations showed no significant shift in molecular mass to the values expected for biotinylated species, kinetically active truncations exhibited 100% biotinylation. The specificity constant (k(cat)/Km) governing BirA-catalyzed biotinylation of the 14-mer minimal substrate is similar to that determined for the natural substrate, BCCP. We conclude that the 14-mer peptide efficiently mimics the biotin acceptor function of the much larger protein domain normally recognized by BirA.