A library of Enterobacter cloacae P99 beta-lactamase mutants was produced to investigate the importance of residues 286-290 for substrate binding and catalysis and to characterize mutants with altered specificities and activities for various 3'-substituted cephalosporins. This region of the enzyme is a component of the active site that has not been implicated as participating in the catalytic mechanism but, based on molecular modeling, should contact the 3' substituents of cephalosporins. Random mutagenesis was carried out within an M13 phage vector by hybridization mutagenesis, and the phage library could be highly enriched for active beta-lactamase genes by incubation of infected bacteria with beta-lactam antibiotics. The mutants were characterized by Michaelis-Menten kinetic analyses with several cephalosporin substrates and spanned a 25-fold range of k(cat), 24-fold range of K(m), and 6-fold range of k(cat)/K(m) values. All five amino acid positions were found to be permissive to substitution, but the active mutant proteins carried substitutions that likely maintained the structure of the region. Serine 287 was the least permissive to change, requiring small, uncharged residues for retention of catalytic activity. The variation of Michaelis-Menten kinetic parameters observed in these enzymes was shown to be significant in the context of in vitro cytotoxicity assays with the cephalosporin-doxorubicin prodrug C-Dox and is suitable for experiments to probe the relationship between enzyme kinetics and efficacy in enzyme-prodrug approaches to targeted therapy.