The sialic acid N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc) is formed by cytidine-5'-monophosphate-N-acetylneuraminic acid (CMP-Neu5Ac) hydroxylase (EC 184.108.40.206). The enzyme from mammals exhibits several unusual characteristics, raising questions about its evolution. Since echinoderms are the most primitive organisms possessing glycoconjugate-bound Neu5Gc, studies on the hydroxylase from members of this phylum may yield insights into the origin and development of the hydroxylase. Investigations on crude CMP-Neu5Ac hydroxylase in gonads from the starfish Asterias rubens revealed that it shares many properties with its mammalian counterpart. However, the echinoderm hydroxylase also exhibits fundamental differences, particularly its association with a membrane and a requirement for high ionic strength for optimal activity. Here, we describe the isolation of the CMP-Neu5Ac hydroxylase from A. rubens gonads using anion exchange chromatography and chromatography on immobilized cytochrome b(5). The enzyme was enriched 137-fold with a yield of 13%. The preparation exhibited a main polypeptide of 76 kDa, consistent with a cDNA sequence published earlier, and a minor protein of 64 kDa. A kinetic characterization showed that salt activation of this enzyme results from an increase in affinity for CMP-Neu5Ac. Evidence for the formation of a ternary complex of hydroxylase, CMP-Neu5Ac and cytochrome b(5) is also presented. The mechanistic and physiological significance of these results is discussed.