Hsp70 molecular chaperones are highly conserved ATPases that guide the folding and assembly of proteins in many cellular pathways. They use the energy of ATP binding and hydrolysis to regulate their interactions with hydrophobic regions of unfolded proteins. The activities and the conformations of the N-terminal nucleotide- and C-terminal polypeptide-binding domains of Hsp70s are coupled. We recently reported that the sulfhydryl-modifying reagent N-ethylmaleimide (NEM) inactivates the yeast Hsp70 Ssa1p by reacting with its three cysteine residues which are located in the nucleotide-binding domain. To further characterize conformational changes associated with interdomain coupling and to determine whether NEM alters Ssa1p's conformation, the structures of Ssa1p and NEM-modified Ssa1p (NEM-Ssa1p) were compared using a variety of biophysical techniques. Size exclusion chromatography revealed that NEM-Ssa1p is more oligomeric and more resistant to nucleotide- or polypeptide-dependent depolymerization than Ssa1p. Measurement of the thermal stability indicated that NEM modification has an effect very similar to that of binding of nucleotides to the unmodified protein. Circular dichroism demonstrated small differences in the secondary structure of Ssa1p and NEM-Ssa1p, and in their complexes with nucleotides. NEM modification increased the ANS fluorescence of Ssa1p and exposed numerous trypsin-sensitive sites in its nucleotide-binding domain. The intrinsic fluorescence of Ssa1p's only tryptophan residue, which is located in a C-terminal alpha-helical region adjacent to the polypeptide-binding cleft, was quenched in the presence of ATP, but not ADP. NEM modification altered nucleotide-dependent changes in the intrinsic fluorescence of Ssa1p. Together, these results demonstrate that NEM alters the conformation of Ssa1p and disrupts, but does not eliminate, interdomain communication. Furthermore, the results provide evidence for a model in which the polypeptide-binding cleft of Hsp70s is covered by an alpha-helical lid that is open in the presence of ATP, but closed in the presence of ADP.