Crystallographic and spectroscopic studies on galactose oxidase have shown that the active site involves a free radical on tyrosine 272, one of the ligands coordinated to the Cu2+ cofactor. A novel thioether bond between tyrosine 272 and cysteine 228, and a stacking tryptophan 290, over this bond, are features of the crystal structure. The present study describes the development of a high level heterologous expression system for galactose oxidase and the construction of mutational variants at these key active site residues. The expressed wild-type enzyme and mutational variants (W290H and C228G) have been characterized by x-ray crystallography, visible spectroscopy, and catalytic activity measurements. A further variant protein, Y272F, could not be purified. The data establish that the thioether bond and stacking tryptophan are essential for activity and further support a role for tryptophan 290 as a component of the free radical site.