Magnesium protoporphyrin chelatase catalyzes the insertion of a Mg(2+) ion into protoporphyrin IX, which can be considered as the first committed step of (bacterio)chlorophyll synthesis. In the present work, the Mg chelatase H subunits from both Synechocystis and Rhodobacter sphaeroides were studied because of the differing requirements of these organisms for modified cyclic tetrapyrroles. Deuteroporphyrin was shown to be a substrate for Mg chelatase. Analytical HPLC gel filtration was used to show that an H-deuteroporphyrin complex can be reconstituted by incubating the magnesium chelatase H subunit with a molar excess of deuteroporphyrin and that these complexes are monomers. The binding process occurs in the absence of Mg(2+) or ATP or the I or D subunits of Mg chelatase. The emission from Trp residues in the H subunit is partly quenched when deuteroporphyrin is bound. Quantitative analysis of Trp fluorescence quenching led to determination of the K(d) values for deuteroporphyrin binding to BchH from Rb. sphaeroides and ChlH from Synechocystis, which are 1.22 +/- 0.42 microM and 0.53 +/- 0.12 microM for ChlH and BchH, respectively. In the case of ChlH, but not BchH, the K(d) increased 4-fold in the presence of MgATP(2-). Red shifts in absorbance and excitation peaks were observed in the B band of the bound porphyrin in comparison with deuteroporphyrin in solution, as well as reduced yield and red shifts of up to 8 nm in fluorescence emission. These alterations are consistent with a slightly deformed nonplanar conformation of the bound porphyrin. Mg deuteroporphyrin, the product of the Mg chelation reaction, was shown to form a complex with either ChlH or BchH; in each case the K(d) for Mg deuteroporphyrin is similar to that for deuteroporphyrin. The implications of the H-Mg protoporphyrin interaction for the next enzyme in the chlorophyll biosynthetic pathway, Mg protoporphyrin methyltransferase, are discussed.