Thioredoxin reductase (TrxR) from Escherichia coli consists of two globular domains connected by a two-stranded beta sheet: an FAD domain and a pyridine nucleotide binding domain. The latter domain contains the redox-active disulfide composed of Cys 135 and Cys 138. TrxR is proposed to undergo a conformational change whereby the two domains rotate 66 degrees relative to each other (Waksman G, Krishna TSR, Williams CH Jr, Kuriyan J, 1994, J Mol Biol 236:800-816), placing either redox active disulfide (FO conformation) or the NADPH binding site (FR conformation) adjacent to the flavin. This domain rotation model was investigated by using a Cys 138 Ser active-site mutant. The flavin fluorescence of this mutant is only 7% that of wild-type TrxR, presumably due to the proximity of Ser 138 to the flavin in the FO conformation. Reaction of the remaining active-site thiol, Cys 135, with phenylmercuric acetate (PMA) causes a 9.5-fold increase in fluorescence. Titration of the PMA-treated mutant with the nonreducing NADP(H) analogue, 3-aminopyridine adenine dinucleotide phosphate (AADP+), results in significant quenching of the flavin fluorescence, which demonstrates binding adjacent to the FAD, as predicted for the FR conformation. Wild-type TrxR, with or without PMA treatment, shows similar quenching by AADP+, indicating that it exists mostly in the FR conformer. These findings, along with increased EndoGluC protease susceptibility of PMA-treated enzymes, agree with the model that the FO and FR conformations are in equilibrium. PMA treatment, because of steric limitations of the phenylmercuric adduct in the FO form, forces the equilibrium to the FR conformer, where AADP+ binding can cause fluorescence quenching and conformational restriction favors proteolytic susceptibility.