Cytosolic phospholipase A(2) (cPLA(2)) hydrolyzes the sna-acyl ester bond of phospholipids and shows a preference for arachidonic acid-containing substrates. We found previously that Ser-228 is essential for enzyme activity and is likely to function as a nucleophile in the catalytic center of the enzyme (Sharp, J. D., White, D. L., Chiou, X. G., Goodson, T., Gamboa, G. C., McClure, D., Burgett, ... [Show full abstract] S., Hoskins, J., Skatrud, P. L., Sportsman, J. R., Becker, G. W., Kang, L. H., Roberts, E. F., and Kramer, R. M. (1991) J. Biol. Chem. 266, 14850-14853). cPLA, contains a catalytic aspartic acid motif common to the subtilisin family of serine proteases. Substitution within this motif of Ala for Asp-549 completely inactivated the enzyme, and substitutions with either glutamic acid or asparagine reduced activity 2000- and 300-fold, respectively. Additionally, using mutants with cysteine replaced by alanine, we found that Cys-331 is responsible for the enzyme's sensitivity to N-ethylmaleimide, Surprisingly, substituting alanine for any of the 19 histidines did not produce inactive enzyme, demonstrating that a classical serine-histidine-aspartate mechanism does not operate in this hydrolase. We found that substituting alanine or histidine for Arg-200 did produce inactive enzyme, while substituting lysine reduced activity 200-fold. Results obtained with the lysine mutant (R200K) and a coumarin ester substrate suggest no specific interaction between Arg-200 and the phosphoryl group of the phospholipid substrate. Arg-200, Ser-228, and Asp-549 are conserved in cPLA, from six species and also in four nonmammalian phospholipase B enzymes. Our results, supported by circular dichroism, provide evidence that Asp-549 and Arg-200 are critical to the enzyme's function and suggest that the cPLA(2) catalytic center is novel.