Maple Syrup Urine Disease (MSUD) in Mennonites is associated with homozygosity for a T to A transversion in the E1 alpha gene of the branched-chain alpha-keto acid dehydrogenase complex. This causes a tyrosine to asparagine substitution at position 393 (Y393N). To assess the functional significance of this missense mutation, we have carried out transfection studies using E1 alpha-deficient MSUD lymphoblasts (Lo) as a host. The level of E1 beta subunit is also greatly reduced in Lo cells. Efficient episomal expression in lymphoblasts was achieved using the EBO vector. The inserts employed were chimeric bovine-human cDNAs which encode mitochondrial import competent E1 alpha subunit precursors. Transfection with normal E1 alpha cDNA into Lo cells restored decarboxylation activity of intact cells. Western blotting showed that both E1 alpha and E1 beta subunits were markedly increased. Introduction of Y393N mutant E1 alpha cDNA failed to produce any measurable decarboxylation activity. Mutant E1 alpha subunit was expressed at a normal level, however, the E1 beta subunit was undetectable. These results provide the first evidence that Y393N mutation is the cause of MSUD. Moreover, this mutation impedes the assembly of E1 alpha with E1 beta into a stable alpha 2 beta 2 structure, resulting in the degradation of the free E1 beta subunit.