The crystal structure of malate dehydrogenase from Escherichia coli has been determined with a resulting R-factor of 0.187 for X-ray data from 8.0 to 1.87 A. Molecular replacement, using the partially refined structure of porcine mitochondrial malate dehydrogenase as a probe, provided initial phases. The structure of this prokaryotic enzyme is closely homologous with the mitochondrial enzyme but somewhat less similar to cytosolic malate dehydrogenase from eukaryotes. However, all three enzymes are dimeric and form the subunit-subunit interface through similar surface regions. A citrate ion, found in the active site, helps define the residues involved in substrate binding and catalysis. Two arginine residues, R81 and R153, interacting with the citrate are believed to confer substrate specificity. The hydroxyl of the citrate is hydrogen-bonded to a histidine, H177, and similar interactions could be assigned to a bound malate or oxaloacetate. Histidine 177 is also hydrogen-bonded to an aspartate, D150, to form a classic His.Asp pair. Studies of the active site cavity indicate that the bound citrate would occupy part of the site needed for the coenzyme. In a model building study, the cofactor, NAD, was placed into the coenzyme site which exists when the citrate was converted to malate and crystallographic water molecules removed. This hypothetical model of a ternary complex was energy minimized for comparison with the structure of the binary complex of porcine cytosolic malate dehydrogenase. Many residues involved in cofactor binding in the minimized E. coli malate dehydrogenase structure are homologous to coenzyme binding residues in cytosolic malate dehydrogenase. In the energy minimized structure of the ternary complex, the C-4 atom of NAD is in van der Waals' contact with the C-3 atom of the malate. A catalytic cycle involves hydride transfer between these two atoms.