A genetic selection has been used to isolate variants of the serine protease, trypsin (Tsn), altered in specificity toward lysine- and arginine-containing substrates. Growth of a lysine auxotroph of Escherichia coli was coupled to activation by Tsn of a non-nutritive source of lysine present in selective media. Nine Tsn variants possessing partial activities were isolated from a random library encompassing amino acids 189 and 190 at the base of the primary specificity pocket. Functional analysis of these isolates indicates that preservation of activity toward lysine-containing substrates is more tolerant to mutation than is activity toward equivalent arginine-containing substrates. Both the position, as well as the accessibility to substrate, of a negatively charged group in the binding pocket appear critical to maintenance of high-level catalytic potency by Tsn.