Abstract Neither the tertiary structure nor the location of active sites are known for phenylalanyl-tRNA synthetase (PheRS; α 2 β 2 structure), a member of class II aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases. In an attempt to detect the phenylalanine (Phe) binding site, two Escherichia coli PheRS mutant strains ( pheS), which were resistant to p-fluorophenylalanine ( p-F-Phe) were analysed genetically. The pheS mutations were found to cause Ala294 to Ser294 exchanges in the α subunits from both independent strains. This alteration (S294) resided in the well-conserved C-terminal part of the α subunit, precisely within motif 3, a typical class II tRNA synthetase sequence. We thus propose that motif 3 participates in the formation of the Phe binding site of PheRS. Mutation S294 was also the key for proposing a mechanism by which the substrate analogue p-F-Phe is excluded from the enzymatic reaction; this may be achieved by steric interactions between the para-position of the aromatic ring and the amino acid residue at position 294. The Phe binding site model was then tested by replacing the alanine at position 294 as well as the two flanking phenylalanines (positions 293 and 295) by a number of selected other amino acids. In vivo and in vitro results demonstrated that Phe293 and Phe295 are not directly involved in substrate binding, but replacements of those residues affected PheRS stability. However, exchanges at position 294 altered the binding of Phe, and certain mutants showed pronounced changes in specificity towards Phe analogues. Of particular interest was the Gly294 PheRS in which presumably an enlarged cavity for the para position of the aromatic ring allowed an increased aminoacylation of tRNA with p-F-Phe. Moreover, the larger para-chloro and para-bromo derivatives of Phe could interact with this enzyme in vitro and became highly toxic in vivo. The possible exploitation of the Gly294 mutant PheRS for the incorporation of non-proteinogenic amino acids into proteins is discussed.