A high level of functional recombinant rat cytochrome P450C24 enzyme (CYP24A1) was obtained (40-50mg/L) using an Escherichia coli expression system. Purified enzyme was stable with retention of spectral and catalytic activity. The rate of 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D(3) [1,25(OH)(2)D(3)] side-chain oxidation and cleavage to the end-product calcitroic acid was directly related to the rate of electron transfer from the ferredoxin redox partner. It was determined from substrate-induced spectral shifts that the 1 alpha- and 25-hydroxyl groups on vitamin D(3) metabolites and analogs were the major determinants for high-affinity binding to CYP24A1. Lowest K(d) values were obtained for 1 alpha-vitamin D(3) (0.06 microM) and 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D(3) (0.05 microM) whereas unmodified parental vitamin D(3) and the non-secosteroid 25-hydroxycholesterol had lower affinities with K(d) values of 1.3 and 1.9 microM, respectively. The lowest binding affinity for natural vitamin D metabolites was observed for 24,25-dihydroxyvitamin D(3) [24,25(OH)(2)D(3)] (0.43 microM). Kinetic analyses of the two natural substrates 25-hydroxyvitamin D(3) [25(OH)D(3)] and 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D(3) [1,25(OH)(2)D(3)] revealed similar K(m) values (0.35 and 0.38 microM, respectively), however, the turnover number was higher for 25(OH)D(3) compared to 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) (4.2 and 1 min(-1), respectively). Mutagenesis of F249 within the F-helix of CYP24A1 altered substrate binding and metabolism. Most notable, the hydrophobic to polar mutant F249T had a strong impact on lowering substrate-binding affinity and catalysis of the final C(23) oxidation sequence from 24,25,26,27-tetranor-1,23-dihydroxyvitamin D(3) to calcitroic acid. Two other hydrophobic 249 mutants (F249A and F249Y) also lowered substrate binding and expressed metabolic abnormalities that included the C(23)-oxidation defect observed with mutant F249T plus a similar defect involving an earlier pathway action for the C(24) oxidation of 1,24,25-trihydroxyvitamin D(3). Therefore, Phe-249 within the F-helix was demonstrated to have an important role in properly binding and aligning substrate in the CYP24A1 active site for C(23) and C(24) oxidation reactions.