The homodimeric cyanide-resistant alternative oxidase of plant mitochondria reduces oxygen to water without forming ATP. Arabidopsis thaliana alternative oxidase AOX1a is stimulated by pyruvate or other alpha-keto acids associating with a regulatory cysteine at position 78, by succinate in a serine-78 mutant, and by site-directed mutation of position 78 to glutamate. The mechanism of activation was explored with additional amino acid substitutions made at Cys-78 in AOX1a, which was functionally expressed in Escherichia coli. Oxidases with positively charged substitutions (Lys and Arg) were insensitive to pyruvate or succinate but were more active than the wild type without pyruvate. Uncharged substitutions (Gln, Leu) produced an inactive enzyme. These results indicate that activation may be due to conformational changes caused by charge repulsion between the dimer subunits and not through a direct role of alpha-keto acids in catalysis. Oxygen isotope fractionation experiments suggest that the charge of the amino acid at position 78 also affects the entry of oxygen into the active site. Therefore, the N-terminal portion of the protein containing residue 78 can indirectly affect both catalysis at the diiron active site and the path of oxygen to that site. In addition, both positively and negatively substituted alternative oxidases were stimulated by glyoxylate, suggesting the presence of a second activation site, possibly Cys-128.