Vinorine synthase (EC 22.214.171.124) catalyses the acetyl-CoA- or CoA-dependent reversible formation of the alkaloids vinorine (or 11-methoxy-vinorine) and 16-epi-vellosimine (or gardneral). The forward reaction leads to vinorine, which is a direct biosynthetic precursor along the complex pathway to the monoterpenoid indole alkaloid ajmaline, an antiarrhythmic drug from the Indian medicinal plant Rauvolfia serpentina. Based on partial peptide sequences a cDNA clone was isolated and functionally expressed in Escherichia coli. The Km values of the native enzyme for gardneral and acetyl-CoA were determined to be 7.5 and 57 microM. The amino acid sequence of vinorine synthase has highest level of identity (28-31%) to that of Papaver salutaridinol acetyltransferase, Fragaria alcohol acyltransferase, and Catharanthus deacetylvindoline acetyltransferase involved in morphine, flavor, and vindoline biosynthesis, respectively. Vinorine synthase is a novel member of the BAHD superfamily of acyltransferases. Site-directed mutagenesis of 13 amino acid residues provided clear evidence that both, His160 and Asp164 of the consensus sequence HxxxD belong to the catalytic center. The mutations also showed that an amino acid triad is not characteristic of vinorine synthase. The experiments demonstrated the importance of the conserved motif SxL/I/VD near the N-terminus and the consensus sequence DFGWG near the C-terminal.