The comparison of the amino acid sequences of 20 cytoplasmic peptidoglycan synthetases (MurC, MurD, MurE, MurF, and Mpl) from various bacterial organisms has allowed us to detect common invariants: seven amino acids and the ATP-binding consensus sequence GXXGKT/S all at the same position in the alignment. The Mur synthetases thus appeared as a well-defined class of closely functionally related proteins. The conservation of a constant backbone length between certain invariants suggested common structural motifs. Among the other enzymes catalyzing a peptide bond formation driven by ATP hydrolysis to ADP and Pi, only folylpoly-gamma-l-glutamate synthetases presented the same common conserved amino acid residues, except for the most N-terminal invariant D50. Site-directed mutageneses were carried out to replace the K130, E174, H199, N293, N296, R327, and D351 residues by alanine in the MurC protein from Escherichia coli taken as model. For this purpose, plasmid pAM1005 was used as template, MurC being highly overproduced in this genetic setting. Analysis of the Vmax values of the mutated proteins suggested that residues K130, E174, and D351 are essential for the catalytic process whereas residues H199, N293, N296, and R327 were not. Mutations K130A, H199A, N293A, N296A, and R327A led to important variations of the Km values for one or more substrates, thereby indicating that these residues are involved in the structure of the active site and suggesting that the binding order of the substrates could be ATP, UDP-MurNAc, and alanine. The various mutated murC plasmids were tested for their effects on the growth, cell morphology, and peptidoglycan cell content of a murC thermosensitive strain at 42 degrees C. The observed effects (complementation, altered morphology, and reduced peptidoglycan content) paralleled more or less the decreased values of the MurC activity of each mutant.