The active site of pig heart citrate synthase contains a histidine residue (H320) which interacts with the carbonyl oxygen of oxaloacetate and is implicated in substrate activation through carbonyl bond polarization, a major catalytic strategy of the enzyme. We report here the effects on the catalytic mechanism of changing this important residue to glycine. H320G shows modest impairment in substrate Michaelis constants [(7-16)-fold] and a large decrease in catalysis (600-fold). For the native enzyme, the chemical intermediate, citryl-CoA, is both hydrolyzed and converted back to reactants, oxaloacetate and acetyl-CoA. In the mutant, citryl-CoA is only hydrolyzed, indicating a major defect in the condensation reaction. As monitored by the carbonyl carbon's chemical shift, the extent of oxaloacetate carbonyl polarization is decreased in all binary and ternary complexes. As indicated by the lack of rapid H320G--oxaloacetate catalysis of the exchange of the methyl protons of acetyl-CoA or the pro-S-methylene proton of propionyl-CoA, the activation of acetyl-CoA is also faulty. Reflecting this defect in acetyl-CoA activation, the carboxyl chemical shift of H320G-bound carboxymethyl-CoA (a transition-state analog of the neutral enol intermediate) fails to decrease on formation of the H3020G-oxaloacetate-carboxymethyl-CoA ternary complex. Progress curves and steady-state data with H320G using citryl-CoA as substrate show unusual properties: substrate inhibition and accelerating progress curves. Either one of two models with subunit cooperativity [Monod, J., Wyman, J., & Changeux, J.-P. (1965) J. Mol. Biol. 12, 88; Koshland, D. E., Jr., Nemethy, G., & Filmer, D. (1966) Biochemistry 5, 365] quantitatively accounts for both the initial velocity data and the individual progress curves. The concentrations of all enzyme forms and complexes are assumed to rapidly reach their equilibrium values compared to the rate of substrate turnover. The native enzyme also behaves according to models for subunit cooperativity with citryl-CoA as substrate. However, the rates of formation/dissociation and reaction of complexes are kinetically significant. Comparisons of the values of kinetic constants between the native and mutants enzymes lead us to conclude that the mutant less readily undergoes a conformation change required for efficient activation of substrates.