Carbonyl reductase catalyses the reduction of steroids, prostaglandins and a variety of xenobiotics. An unusual property of human and rat carbonyl reductases is that they undergo modification at lysine-239 by an autocatalytic process involving 2-oxocarboxylic acids, such as pyruvate and 2-oxoglutarate. Comparison of human carbonyl reductase with the pig enzyme, which does not undergo autocatalytic modification, identified three sites, alanine-236, threonine-241 and glutamic acid-246, on human carbonyl reductase that could be important in the reaction of lysine-239 with 2-oxocarboxylic acids. Mutagenesis experiments show that replacement of threonine-241 with proline (T241P) in human carbonyl reductase eliminates the formation of carboxyethyl-lysine-239. In contrast, the T241A mutant has autocatalytic activity similar to wild-type carbonyl reductase. The T241P mutant retains catalytic activity towards menadione, although with one-fifth the catalytic efficiency of wild-type carbonyl reductase. Replacement of threonine-241 with proline is likely to disrupt the local structure near lysine-239. We propose that integrity of this local environment is essential for chemical modification of lysine-239, but not absolutely required for carbonyl reductase activity.