In cyanobacteria, the biosynthesis of the phycobiliprotein and phytochrome chromophore precursor phycocyanobilin is catalyzed by the ferredoxin-dependent enzyme phycocyanobilin:ferredoxin oxidoreductase (PcyA), which mediates an atypical four-electron reduction of biliverdin IXalpha. Here we describe the expression, affinity purification, and biochemical characterization of recombinant PcyA from Anabaena sp. PCC 7120. A monomeric protein with a native M(r) of 30,400 +/- 5,000, recombinant PcyA forms a tight and stable stoichiometric complex with its substrate biliverdin IXalpha. The enzyme exhibits a strong preference for plant type [2Fe-2S] ferredoxins; however, flavodoxin can also serve as an electron donor. HPLC analyses establish that catalysis proceeds via the two electron-reduced intermediate 18(1),18(2)-dihydrobiliverdin, indicating that exovinyl reduction precedes A-ring (endovinyl) reduction. Substrate specificity studies indicate that the arrangement of the A- and D-ring substituents alters the positioning of the bilin substrate within the enzyme, profoundly influencing the course of catalysis. Based on these observations and the apparent lack of a metal or small molecule cofactor, a radical mechanism for biliverdin IXalpha reduction by phycocyanobilin:ferredoxin oxidoreductase is envisaged.