Histidine substrate specificity has been engineered into trypsin by creating metal binding sites for Ni2+ and Zn2+ ions. The sites bridge the substrate and enzyme on the leaving-group side of the scissile bond. Application of simple steric and geometric criteria to a crystallographically derived enzyme-substrate model suggested that histidine specificity at the P2' position might be achieved by a tridentate site involving amino acid residues 143 and 151 of trypsin. Trypsin N143H/E151H hydrolyzes a P2'-His-containing peptide (AGPYAHSS) exclusively in the presence of nickel or zinc with a high level of catalytic efficiency. Since cleavage following the tyrosine residue is normally highly disfavored by trypsin, this result demonstrates that a metal cofactor can be used to modulate specificity in a designed fashion. The same geometric criteria applied in the primary S1 binding pocket suggested that the single-site mutation D189H might effect metal-dependent His specificity in trypsin. However, kinetic and crystallographic analysis of this variant showed that the design was unsuccessful because His189 rotates away from substrate causing a large perturbation in adjacent surface loops. This observation suggests that the reason specificity modification at the trypsin S1 site requires extensive mutagenesis is because the pocket cannot deform locally to accommodate alternate P1 side chains. By taking advantage of the extended subsites, an alternate substrate specificity has been engineered into trypsin.