The terminal step in heme biosynthesis, the insertion of ferrous iron into protoporphyrin IX to form protoheme, is catalyzed by the enzyme ferrochelatase (EC 188.8.131.52). A number of highly conserved residues identified from the crystal structure of human ferrochelatase as being in the active site were examined by site-directed mutagenesis. The mutants Y123F, Y165F, Y191H, and R164L each had an increased K(m) for iron without an altered K(m) for porphyrin. The double mutant R164L/Y165F had a 6-fold increased K(m) for iron and a 10-fold decreased V(max). The double mutant Y123F/Y191F had low activity with an elevated K(m) for iron, and Y123F/Y165F had no measurable activity. The mutants H263A/C/N, D340N, E343Q, E343H, and E343K had no measurable enzyme activity, while E343D, E347Q, and H341C had decreased V(max)s without significant alteration of the K(m)s for either substrate. D340E had near-normal kinetic parameters, while D383A and H231A had increased K(m)s for iron. On the basis of these data and the crystal structure of human ferrochelatase, it is proposed that residues E343, H341, and D340 form a conduit from H263 in the active site to the protein exterior and function in proton extraction from the porphyrin macrocycle. The role of H263 as the porphyrin proton-accepting residue is central to catalysis since metalation only occurs in conjunction with proton abstraction. It is suggested that iron is transported from the exterior of the enzyme at D383/H231 via residues W227 and Y191 to the site of metalation at residues R164 and Y165 which are on the opposite side of the active site pocket from H263. This model should be general for mitochondrial membrane-associated eucaryotic ferrochelatases but may differ for bacterial ferrochelatases since the spatial orientation of the enzyme within prokaryotic cells may differ.