Glutamic acid 20 is an evolutionarily conserved residue found within the active site of the inorganic pyrophosphatase of Escherichia coli (E-PPase). Here we determine the effect of E20D substitution on the quaternary structure and catalytic properties of E-PPase. In contrast to wild-type enzyme, which is hexameric under a variety of conditions, E20D-PPase can be dissociated by dilution into nearly inactive trimers, as shown by electrophoresis of cross-linked enzyme, analytical ultracentrifugation, and measurement of catalytic activity as a function of enzyme concentration, Hexamer stability is increased in the presence of both substrate and Mg2+, is maximal at pH 6.5, and falls off sharply as the pH is lowered or raised from this value. Measured at saturating substrate, 20 mM Mg2+ and pH 7.2, E20D substitution (a) decreases activity toward inorganic pyrophosphate (PPi) hydrolysis and oxygen exchange between water and inorganic phosphate (P-i), (b) increases the rate of net PPi synthesis, and (c) decreases the amount of enzyme-bound PPi in equilibrium with P-i in solution. Measurements of PPi hydrolysis rate as a function of both Mg2+ concentration and pH for the E20D variant show that its decreased activity is largely accounted for on the basis of an increased pK(a) of the catalytically essential base at the active site, and the need for a Mg2+ stoichiometry of 5 in the enzyme-substrate complex, similar to what is seen for the D97E variant. By contrast, wild-type PPase catalysis over a wide range of Mg2+ concentration and pH is dominated by an enzyme-substrate complex having a total of four Mg2+ ions. These results are consistent with a supporting role for Glu20 in PPase catalysis and demonstrate that even conservative mutation at the active site can perturb the quaternary structure of the enzyme.