Insulin-degrading enzyme (IDE), a nonlysosomal metalloprotease involved in metabolizing internalized insulin, has catalytic properties that have been strongly conserved through evolution. Two major properties distinguish IDE from the prototypic metalloprotease thermolysin. 1) It is inhibited by cysteine protease inhibitors as well as metalloprotease inhibitors; 2) it contains an inversion of the HEXXH active site motif of thermolysin, where the histidines coordinate zinc and the glutamate participates in catalysis. Furthermore, cysteine is adjacent to the glutamate residue (HXCEH) in human, rat, and Drosophila IDE, although it is not conserved in their close homologue, Escherichia coli protease III. This cysteine has been postulated to mediate the differential sensitivity of IDE and protease III to cysteine protease inhibitors and chelators. The role of the cysteine in IDE catalysis and inhibitor sensitivity was examined by mutating Cys110 to glycine or serine. To determine whether glutamate in this unusual motif participates in catalysis, we mutated Glu111 to aspartate, valine, or glutamine. Vectors containing wild type or mutant enzymes were transfected into COS cells, and expression was confirmed by Western blotting. Although the glutamate mutants were devoid of insulin degrading activity, the cysteine mutants were indistinguishable from wild type enzyme in both catalytic activity and sensitivity to inhibitors. The loss of activity in the glutamate mutants was not due to gross alterations in tertiary structure, as shown by retention of the ability to bind substrate and by conservative and nonconservative mutation of a neighboring residue with no apparent effect on catalysis. These results demonstrate that the conserved glutamate in the zinc-binding site of human insulin-degrading enzyme is a major catalytic residue, while a conserved cysteine in this region is not essential for catalysis or inhibitor sensitivity.