alpha 1-Antitrypsin is the archetypal member of the serine proteinase inhibitor or serpin superfamily. Members of the family show structural homology based on a dominant A beta-sheet and a mobile reactive centre loop. Our recent crystal structure of alpha 1-antitrypsin stabilized with a point mutation showed the loop to be in a canonical inhibitory conformation in the absence of significant insertion into the A beta-sheet. It could be argued that the stabilizing mutation may induce the reactive centre loop to adopt an artificial, and unrepresentative, conformation and the finding seems to be at variance with studies assessing rates of peptide insertion into the A beta-sheet and limited proteolysis of the reactive loop. Here we present a 2.9 A structure of recombinant wild-type alpha 1-antitrypsin with no stabilizing mutations. Again, the reactive loop is in a canonical conformation in the absence of significant insertion into the A beta-sheet. A stabilizing salt bridge between P5 glutamate and arginine residues 196, 223 and 281, already identified in the mutant, provides strong evidence that this conformation is not an artefact of crystallization but represents the conformation of the circulating inhibitor in vivo. Comparison with the structure of alpha 1-antitrypsin stabilized with the Phe51Leu mutation indicates that the increased thermal stability of the mutant results from enhanced packing of aromatic residues in the hydrophobic core of the molecule. The structure of wild-type alpha 1-antitrypsin reveals a hydrophobic pocket between s2A and helices D and E that is filled on reactive loop insertion and the formation of biologically relevant loop-sheet polymers. This pocket may provide a target for rational drug design to prevent the formation of polymers and the associated plasma deficiency, liver cirrhosis and emphysema.