cDNA encoding the mature form of human hydroxy-methylglutaryl-CoA (HMG-CoA) lyase, a mitochondrial matrix protein, has been used to prepare expression plasmids appropriate for production of this protein in Escherichia coli. Using a T7 RNA polymerase-based pET system, HMG-CoA lyase was overexpressed but largely recovered in an insoluble, catalytically inactive form. In contrast, an expression plasmid (pTrcHL-1), derived from pTrc99a, supported production of soluble, active enzyme. A synthetic oligonucleotide cassette was employed to produce an enzyme variant in which cysteine was replaced by serine at position 323. Both wild-type and C323S HMG-CoA lyases were isolated in homogeneous form and characterized. The function of Cys-323 in influencing catalytic activity in vitro has been investigated by comparing the response of wild-type and C323S lyases to oxidation and reduction. Additionally, the consequences of treatment of these enzymes with the sulfhydryl-directed bifunctional reagent, o-phenylenedimaleimide have been determined. The results support the hypothesis that a thiol/disulfide exchange mechanism affects enzyme activity in vitro and indicate that Cys-323 residues on adjacent subunits of the homodimeric native enzyme are suitably positioned to form an intersubunit cross-link upon oxidative inactivation and disulfide formation.