Calmodulin (CaM)-dependent myosin light chain kinase (MLCK) plays a key role in activation of smooth muscle contraction. A soybean isoform of CaM, SCaM-4 (77% identical to human CaM) fails to activate MLCK, whereas SCaM-1 (90.5% identical to human CaM) is as effective as CaM. We exploited this difference to gain insights into the structural requirements in CaM for activation of MLCK. A chimera (domain I of SCaM-4 and domains II-IV of SCaM-1) behaved like SCaM4, and analysis of site-specific mutants of SCaM-1 indicated that K30E and G40D mutations were responsible for the reduction in activation of MLCK. Competition experiments showed that SCaM-4 binds to the CaM-binding site of MLCK with high affinity. Replacement of CaM in skinned smooth muscle by exogenous CaM or SCaM-1, but not SCaM-4, restored Ca(2+)-dependent contraction. K30E/M36I/G40D SCaM-1 was a poor activator of contraction, but site-specific mutants, K30E, M36I and G40D, each restored Ca(2+)-induced contraction to CaM-depleted skinned smooth muscle, consistent with their capacity to activate MLCK. Interpretation of these results in light of the high-resolution structures of (Ca(2+))(4)-CaM, free and complexed with the CaM-binding domain of MLCK, indicates that a surface domain containing Lys(30) and Gly(40) and residues from the C-terminal domain is created upon binding to MLCK, formation of which is required for activation of MLCK. Interactions between this activation domain and a region of MLCK distinct from the known CaM-binding domain are required for removal of the autoinhibitory domain from the active site, i.e., activation of MLCK, or this domain may be required to stabilize the conformation of (Ca(2+))(4)-CaM necessary for MLCK activation.