Apicomplexan parasites (including Plasmodium spp. and Toxoplasma gondii) employ a four-carbon pathway for de novo heme biosynthesis, but this pathway is distinct from the animal/fungal C4 pathway in that it is distributed between three compartments: the mitochondrion, cytosol, and apicoplast, a plastid acquired by secondary endosymbiosis of an alga. Parasite porphobilinogen synthase (PBGS) resides within the apicoplast, and phylogenetic analysis indicates a plant origin. The PBGS family exhibits a complex use of metal ions (Zn(2+) and Mg(2+)) and oligomeric states (dimers, hexamers, and octamers). Recombinant T. gondii PBGS (TgPBGS) was purified as a stable approximately 320-kDa octamer, and low levels of dimers but no hexamers were also observed. The enzyme displays a broad activity peak (pH 7-8.5), with a K(m) for aminolevulinic acid of approximately 150 microM and specific activity of approximately 24 micromol of porphobilinogen/mg of protein/h. Like the plant enzyme, TgPBGS responds to Mg(2+) but not Zn(2+) and shows two Mg(2+) affinities, interpreted as tight binding at both the active and allosteric sites. Unlike other Mg(2+)-binding PBGS, however, metal ions are not required for TgPBGS octamer stability. A mutant enzyme lacking the C-terminal 13 amino acids distinguishing parasite PBGS from plant and animal enzymes purified as a dimer, suggesting that the C terminus is required for octamer stability. Parasite heme biosynthesis is inhibited (and parasites are killed) by succinylacetone, an active site-directed suicide substrate. The distinct phylogenetic, enzymatic, and structural features of apicomplexan PBGS offer scope for developing selective inhibitors of the parasite enzyme based on its quaternary structure characteristics.