The active site of glucosamine-6-phosphate deaminase (EC 220.127.116.11, formerly 18.104.22.168) from Escherichia coli was first characterized on the basis of the crystallographic structure of the enzyme bound to the competitive inhibitor 2-amino-2-deoxy-glucitol 6-phosphate. The structure corresponds to the R allosteric state of the enzyme; it shows the side-chain of His143 in close proximity to the O5 atom of the inhibitor. This arrangement suggests that His143 could have a role in the catalysis of the ring-opening step of glucosamine 6-phosphate whose alpha-anomer is the true substrate. The imidazole group of this active-site histidine contacts the carboxy groups from Glu148 and Asp141, via its Ndelta1 atom [Oliva et al. (1995) Structure 3, 1323-1332]. These interactions change in the T state because the side chain of Glu148 moves toward the allosteric site, leaving at the active site the dyad Asp141-His143 [Horjales et al. (1999) Structure 7, 527-536]. In this research, a dual approach using site-directed mutagenesis and controlled chemical modification of histidine residues has been used to investigate the role of the active-site histidine. Our results support a multifunctional role of His143; in the forward reaction, it is involved in the catalysis of the ring-opening step of the substrate, glucosamine 6-P. In the reverse reaction, the substrate fructose 6-P binds in its open chain, carbonylic form. The role of His143 in the binding of both glucosamine 6-P and reaction intermediates in their extended-chain forms was demonstrated by binding experiments using the reaction intermediate analogue, 2-amino-2-deoxy-D-glucitol 6-phosphate. His143 was also shown to be a critical residue for the conformational coupling between active and allosteric sites. From the pH dependence of the reactivity of the active site histidine to diethyl dicarbonate, we observed a pK(a) change of 1.2 units to the acid side when the enzyme undergoes the allosteric T to R transition during which the side chain of Glu148 moves toward the active site. The kinetic study of the Glu148-Gln mutant deaminase shows that the loss of the carboxy group and its replacement with the corresponding amide modifies the k(cat) versus pH profile of the enzyme, suggesting that the catalytic step requiring the participation of His143 has become rate-limiting. This, in turn, indicates that the interaction Glu148-His143 in the wild-type enzyme in the R state contributes to make the enzyme functional over a wide pH range.