Penicillin-binding proteins (PBPs) catalyze the final stages of bacterial cell wall biosynthesis. PBPs form stable covalent complexes with beta-lactam antibiotics, leading to PBP inactivation and ultimately cell death. To understand more clearly how PBPs recognize beta-lactam antibiotics, it is important to know their energies of interaction. Because beta-lactam antibiotics bind covalently to PBPs, these energies are difficult to measure through binding equilibria. However, the noncovalent interaction energies between beta-lactam antibiotics and a PBP can be determined through reversible denaturation of enzyme-antibiotic complexes. Escherichia coli PBP 5, a D-alanine carboxypeptidase, was reversibly denatured by temperature in an apparently two-state manner with a temperature of melting (T(m)) of 48.5 degrees C and a van't Hoff enthalpy of unfolding (H(VH)) of 193 kcal/mole. The binding of the beta-lactam antibiotics cefoxitin, cloxacillin, moxalactam, and imipenem all stabilized the enzyme significantly, with T(m) values as high as +4.6 degrees C (a noncovalent interaction energy of +2.7 kcal/mole). Interestingly, the noncovalent interaction energies of these ligands did not correlate with their second-order acylation rate constants (k(2)/K'). These rate constants indicate the potency of a covalent inhibitor, but they appear to have little to do with interactions within covalent complexes, which is the state of the enzyme often used for structure-based inhibitor design.