The mitotic protein kinase Plk1 catalyzes events associated with centrosome maturation, kinetocore function, spindle formation, and cytokinesis and is a target for anticancer drug design. It is composed of a N-terminal kinase domain and a C-terminal polo-box domain (PBD). The PBD domain serves to localize the kinase on cognate phosphorylated substrates, and this binding relieves the inhibition of the kinase by the PBD. Similar to many protein kinases, Plk1 is activated by phosphorylation on a threonine residue, Thr210, in the activation segment. In this work, we describe expression in Escherichia coli cells and purification of full-length Plk1 in quantities suitable for structural studies and use this material for quantitative characterization of the activation events with the substrate translationally controlled tumour protein (TCTP). The presence of the PBD-binding phosphopeptide enhances phosphorylation by the activating Ste20-like kinase (Slk). Native Plk1 exhibits a basal catalytic efficiency k cat/ K(M) of 9.9 x 10 (-5) s (-1) microM (-1). Association with a polo-box-binding phosphopeptide increased the catalytic efficiency by 11x largely through an increase in k(cat) with no change in K(M). Phosphorylation by Slk increases catalytic efficiency by 202x with a 2.3-fold reduction in K(M) and 88-fold increase in k(cat). Phosphorylation and the presence of the PBD-binding phosphopeptide result in an increase in catalytic efficiency of 1515x with a 2.3-fold decrease in K(M) and a 705-fold increase in k(cat) over the unmodified Plk1. Knowledge of kinase regulatory mechanisms and the structures of the Plk1 individual domains has allowed for a model to be proposed for these activatory events.