The Escherichia coli mannitol transporter (II(Mtl)) comprises three domains connected by flexible linkers: a transmembrane domain (C) and two cytoplasmic domains (A and B). II(Mtl) catalyzes three successive phosphoryl-transfer reactions: one intermolecular (from histidine phosphocarrier protein to the A domain) and two intramolecular (from the A to the B domain and from the B domain to the incoming sugar bound to the C domain). A key functional requirement of II(Mtl) is that the A and B cytoplasmic domains be able to rapidly associate and dissociate while maintaining reasonably high occupancy of an active stereospecific AB complex to ensure effective phosphoryl transfer along the pathway. We have investigated the rate of intramolecular domain-domain association and dissociation in IIBA(Mtl) by using (1)H relaxation dispersion spectroscopy in the rotating frame. The open, dissociated state (comprising an ensemble of states) and the closed, associated state (comprising the stereospecific complex) are approximately equally populated. The first-order rate constants for intramolecular association and dissociation are 1.7 (+/-0.3) x 10(4) and 1.8 (+/-0.4) x 10(4) s(-1), respectively. These values compare to rate constants of approximately 500 s(-1) for A --> B and B --> A phosphoryl transfer, derived from qualitative line-shape analysis of (1)H-(15)N correlation spectra taken during the course of active catalysis. Thus, on average, approximately 80 association/dissociation events are required to effect a single phosphoryl-transfer reaction. We conclude that intramolecular phosphoryl transfer between the A and B domains of II(Mtl) is rate-limited by chemistry and not by the rate of formation or dissociation of a stereospecific complex in which the active sites are optimally apposed.