Leader peptidase (LP) is the enzyme responsible for proteolytic cleavage of the amino acid leader sequence from bacterial preproteins. Recent data indicate that LP may be an unusual serine proteinase which operates without involvement of a histidine residue (M. T. Black, J. G. R. Munn, and A. E. Allsop, Biochem. J. 282:539-543, 1992; M. Sung and R. E. Dalbey, J. Biol. Chem. 267:13154-13159, 1992) and that, therefore, one or more alternative residues must perform the function of a catalytic base. With the aid of sequence alignments, site-specific mutagenesis of the gene encoding LP (lepB) from Escherichia coli has been employed to investigate the mechanism of action of the enzyme. Various mutant forms of plasmid-borne LP were tested for their abilities to complement the temperature-sensitive activity of LP in E. coli IT41. Data are presented which indicate that the only conserved amino acid residue possessing a side chain with the potential to ionize, and therefore with the potential to transfer protons, which cannot be substituted with a neutral side chain is lysine at position 145. The data suggest that the catalytic activity of LP is dependent on the operation of a serine-lysine catalytic dyad.