The molecular mechanism of substrate analogue interaction with Escherichia coli dUTPase was investigated, using the non-hydrolyzable 2'-deoxyuridine 5'-(α,β-imido)triphosphate (α,β-imido-dUTP). Binding of this analogue induces a difference in the far UV circular dichroism (CD) spectrum arguing for a significant change in protein conformation. The spectral shift is strictly Mg2+-dependent, does not appear with dUDP instead of α,β-imido-dUTP and is not elicited if the flexible C-terminal arm is deleted from the protein by limited tryptic digestion. Involvement of the C-terminal arm in α,β-imido-dUTP binding is consistent with the finding that this analogue protects against tryptic hydrolysis at Arg-141. Near UV CD of ligand-enzyme complexes reveals a characteristic difference in the microenvironments of enzyme-bound dUDP and α,β-imido-dUTP, a difference not observable in C-terminally truncated dUTPase. The results suggest that (i) closing of the active site during the catalytic cycle, through the movement of the C-terminal arm, requires the presence of the complete triphosphate moiety of the substrate in complex with Mg2+, and (ii) after catalytic cleavage the active site pops open to facilitate product release.