We are probing the determinants of catalytic function and substrate specificity in serine proteases by kinetic and crystallographic characterization of genetically engineered site-directed mutants of rat trypsin. The role of the aspartyl residue at position 102, common to all members of the serine protease family, has been tested by substitution with asparagine. In the native enzyme, Asp102 accepts a hydrogen bond from the catalytic base His57, which facilitates the transfer of a proton from the enzyme nucleophile Ser195 to the substrate leaving group. At neutral pH, the mutant is four orders of magnitude less active than the naturally occurring enzyme, but its binding affinity for model substrates is virtually undiminished. Crystallographic analysis reveals that Asn102 donates a hydrogen bond to His57, forcing it to act as donor to Ser195. Below pH 6, His57 becomes statistically disordered. Presumably, the di-protonated population of histidyl side chains are unable to hydrogen bond to Asn102. Steric conflict may cause His57 to rotate away from the catalytic site. These results suggest that Asp102 not only provides inductive and orientation effects, but also stabilizes the productive tautomer of His57. Three experiments were carried out to alter the substrate specificity of trypsin. Glycine residues at positions 216 and 226 in the substrate-binding cavity were replaced by alanine residues in order to differentially affect lysine and arginine substrate binding. While the rate of catalysis by the mutant enzymes was reduced in the mutant enzymes, their substrate specificity was enhanced relative to trypsin. The increased specificity was caused by differential effects on the catalytic activity towards arginine and lysine substrates. The Gly----Ala substitution at 226 resulted in an altered conformation of the enzyme which is converted to an active trypsin-like conformation upon binding of a substrate analog. In a third experiment, Lys189, at the bottom of the specificity pocket, was replaced with an aspartate with the expectation that specificity of the enzyme might shift to aspartate. The mutant enzyme is not capable of cleaving at Arg and Lys or Asp, but shows an enhanced chymotrypsin-like specificity. Structural investigations of these mutants are in progress.