The GIY-YIG nuclease domain is present in all kingdoms of life and has diverse functions. It is found in the eukaryotic flap endonuclease and Holliday junction resolvase Slx1-Slx4, the prokaryotic nucleotide excision repair proteins UvrC and Cho, and in proteins of 'selfish' genetic elements. Here we present the structures of the ternary pre- and post-cleavage complexes of the type II GIY-YIG restriction endonuclease Hpy188I with DNA and a surrogate or catalytic metal ion, respectively. Our structures suggest that GIY-YIG nucleases catalyze DNA hydrolysis by a single substitution reaction. They are consistent with a previous proposal that a tyrosine residue (which we expect to occur in its phenolate form) acts as a general base for the attacking water molecule. In contrast to the earlier proposal, our data identify the general base with the GIY and not the YIG tyrosine. A conserved glutamate residue (Glu149 provided in trans in Hpy188I) anchors a single metal cation in the active site. This metal ion contacts the phosphate proS oxygen atom and the leaving group 3'-oxygen atom, presumably to facilitate its departure. Taken together, our data reveal striking analogy in the absence of homology between GIY-YIG and ββα-Me nucleases.