We have determined kinetic and thermodynamic constants governing binding of substrates and products to thymidylate synthase from Escherichia coli (TS) sufficient to describe the kinetic scheme for this enzyme. (1) The catalytic mechanism is ordered in the following manner, TS + dUMP --> TS x dUMP + (6R)-5,10-CH2-H4folate --> TS x dUMP x (6R)-5,10-CH2H4folate --> TS x dTMP x H2folate --> TS x dTMP --> TS as predicted previously by others from steady-state measurements. (2) When substrates are saturating, the overall reaction rate is governed by the slow conversion of enzyme-bound substrates to bound products as demonstrated by (i) large primary and secondary isotope effects on k(cat) and (ii) high rates of product dissociation compared to k(cat). (3) Stopped-flow studies measuring the binding of 10-propargyl-5,8-dideazafolate, an analog of (6R)-5,10-CH2H4folate, with the active site mutant C146A or the C-terminus-truncated mutant P261Am enabled us to identify physical events corresponding to spectral changes which are observed with the wild-type enzyme during initiation of catalysis. A kinetically identifiable reaction step, TS x dUMP x (6R)-5,10-CH2H4folate --> (TS x dUMP x (6R)-5,10-CH2H4folate)*, likely represents reorientation of the C-terminus of the enzyme over the catalytic site. This seals the substrates into a relatively nonaqueous environment in which catalysis can occur. (4) Although TS is a dimer of identical subunits, catalysis is probably confined to only one subunit at a time. (5) The "high-resolution" kinetic scheme described herein provides a framework for the interpretation of the kinetics of catalysis by mutant ecTS chosen to provide insights into the relationship between structure and function.