Abstract The second enzyme in the glycolytic pathway, phosphoglucose isomerase (PGI), catalyses an intracellular aldose–ketose isomerization. Here we describe the human recombinant PGI structure (hPGI) solved in the absence of active site ligands. Crystals isomorphous to those previously reported were used to collect a 94% complete data set to a limiting resolution of 2.1 Å. From the comparison between the free active site hPGI structure and the available human and rabbit PGI (rPGI) structures, a mechanism for protein initial catalytic steps is proposed. Binding of the phosphate moiety of the substrate to two distinct elements of the active site is responsible for driving a series of structural changes resulting in the polarisation of the active site histidine, priming it for the initial ring-opening step of catalysis.