To explore the molecular basis of the biochemical differences among acetylcholinesterase (AChE), butyrylcholinesterase (BuChE) and their alternative splicing and allelic variants, we investigated the acylation phase of cholinesterase catalysis, using phosphorylation as an analogous reaction. Rate constants for organophosphate (DFP) inactivation, as well as for oxime (PAM)-promoted reactivation, were calculated for antibody-immobilized human cholinesterases produced in Xenopus oocytes from natural and site-directed variants of the corresponding DNA constructs. BuChE displayed inactivation and reactivation rates 200- and 25-fold higher than either product of 3'-variable AChE DNAs, consistent with a putative in vivo function for BuChE as a detoxifier that protects AChE from inactivation. Chimeric substitution of active site gorge-lining residues in BuChE with the more anionic and aromatic residues of AChE, reduced inactivation 60-fold but reactivation only 4-fold, and the rate-limiting step of its catalysis appeared to be deacylation. In contrast, a positive charge at the acyl-binding site of BuChE decreased inactivation 8-fold and reactivation 30-fold. Finally, substitution of Asp70 by glycine, as in the natural 'atypical' BuChE variant, did not change the inactivation rate yet reduced reactivation 4-fold. Thus, a combination of electrostatic active site charges with aromatic residue differences at the gorge lining can explain the biochemical distinction between AChE and BuChE. Also, gorge-lining residues, including Asp70, appear to affect the deacylation step of catalysis by BuChE. Individuals carrying the 'atypical' BuChE allele may hence be unresponsive to oxime reactivation therapy following organophosphate poisoning.