The use of Escherichia coli asparaginase II as a drug for the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia is complicated by the significant glutaminase side activity of the enzyme. To develop enzyme forms with reduced glutaminase activity, a number of variants with amino acid replacements in the vicinity of the substrate binding site were constructed and assayed for their kinetic and stability properties. We found that replacements of Asp248 affected glutamine turnover much more strongly than asparagine hydrolysis. In the wild-type enzyme, N248 modulates substrate binding to a neighboring subunit by hydrogen bonding to side chains that directly interact with the substrate. In variant N248A, the loss of transition state stabilization caused by the mutation was 15 kJ mol(-1) for L-glutamine compared to 4 kJ mol(-1) for L-aspartic beta-hydroxamate and 7 kJ mol(-1) for L-asparagine. Smaller differences were seen with other N248 variants. Modeling studies suggested that the selective reduction of glutaminase activity is the result of small conformational changes that affect active-site residues and catalytically relevant water molecules.