5-Aminolevulinate synthase (EC 220.127.116.11) is the first enzyme in the heme biosynthesis in nonplant eukaryotes and some prokaryotes. It functions as a homodimer and requires pyridoxal 5'-phosphate as an essential cofactor. Tyr-121 is a conserved residue in all known sequences of 5-aminolevulinate synthases. Further, it corresponds to Tyr-70 of Escherichia coli aspartate aminotransferase, which has been shown to interact with the cofactor and prevent the dissociation of the cofactor from the enzyme. To test whether Tyr-121 is involved in cofactor binding in murine erythroid 5-aminolevulinate synthase, Tyr-121 of murine erythroid 5-aminolevulinate synthase was substituted by Phe and His using site-directed mutagenesis. The Y121F mutant retained 36% of the wild-type activity and the Km value for substrate glycine increased 34-fold, while the activity of the Y121H mutant decreased to 5% of the wild-type activity and the Km value for glycine increased fivefold. The pKa1 values in the pH-activity profiles of the wild-type and mutant enzymes were 6.41, 6.54, and 6.65 for wild-type, Y121F, and Y121H, respectively. The UV-visible and CD spectra of Y121F and Y121H mutants were similar to those of the wild-type with the exception of an absorption maximum shift (420 --> 395 nm) for the Y121F mutant in the visible spectrum region, suggesting that the cofactor binds the Y121F mutant enzyme in a more unrestrained manner. Y121F and Y121H mutant enzymes also exhibited lower affinity than the wild-type for the cofactor, reflected in the Kd values for pyridoxal 5'-phosphate (26.5, 6.75, and 1.78 microM for Y121F, Y121H, and the wild-type, respectively). Further, Y121F and Y121H proved less thermostable than the wild type. Taken together, these findings indicate that Tyr-121 plays a critical role in cofactor binding of murine erythroid 5-aminolevulinate synthase.