N-Hydroxysulfosuccinimide esters are reactive functional groups employed in a variety of protein modification reagents, especially cross-linking reagents. For these compounds, hydrolysis is the most important reaction competing for reaction of the esters with nucleophilic groups in proteins. We have employed model compounds to investigate the rates of hydrolysis of N-hydroxysulfosuccinimide esters and their reactions with the alpha-amino group and the side chains of naturally occurring amino acids, under conditions comparable to those used for protein modification studies. The rats of hydrolysis observed were found to be very low, as compared with their rates of reaction with nitrogen nucleophiles found in proteins. Further, within the ranges investigated, the rate of aminolysis was observed to increase more rapidly than the rate of hydrolysis with increasing pH or with increasing temperature. Four amino acid side chains and the alpha-amino group were found to react measurably with N-hydroxysulfosuccinimide esters. At pH 7.4 and room temperature, the order of reactivity was found to be N alpha-Cbz-histidine greater than N alpha-Cbz-lysine approximately phenylalanine (alpha-amino group) much greater than N-acetylcysteine approximately N-acetyltyrosine; however, the acylimidazole adduct formed with the side chain of histidine was found to be a transient product, subject to hydrolysis or reaction with another nucleophile.