The sensitivities of NADH oxidase and/or NADH-ubiquinone reductase activities of submitochondrial particles and purified complex I towards N-ethylmaleimide (NEM) and other SH-reagents were studied. Only thermally de-activated preparations IA.D. Vinogradov (1998) Biochim. Biophys. Acta 1364, 169-185] were inhibited by SH-reagents whereas the redox-pulsed, activated enzyme was resistant to the inhibitors. The pH profile of the pseudo-first order inhibition rate suggested a pKa of about 10 for the de-activation-dependent, NEM-reactive sulfhydryl group. NADH-ubiquinone reductase of activated particles treated with an excess of NEM followed by removal of the inhibitor was still capable of slow reversible active/de-active transition. When active, NEM-treated particles were de-activated and further inhibited by N-fluorescein maleimide, specific incorporation of the fluorescence label into low molecular mass polypeptide was evident. Comparison of the specific fluorescence labeling of submitochondrial particles, crude and purified complex I showed that the active/de-active state-dependent SH-group is located in a 15 kDa polypeptide (most likely in the 15 kDa IP subunit of the iron-sulfur protein-containing fraction of complex I).