Using site-directed mutagenesis, we have completed replacing all 17 putative active site residues of Escherichia coli inorganic pyrophosphatase (PPase). We report here the production of 11 new variant proteins and their initial characterization, including thermostability, hydrophobicity, oligomeric structure, and specific activity at pH 8. Studies of the pH-rate profiles of 12 variants containing substitutions for potentially essential residues showed that the effect of the mutation was always to increase the pK(a) of a basic group essential for both substrate binding and catalysis by 1-3 pH units. The D70E variant had the lowest activity at all pHs; the K29R, R43K, and K142R variants also had low k(cat)/K-m values. The principal effect seen in the other variant proteins was higher and sharper pH optima; their pH-independent k(cat) and k(cat)/K-m values changed at most by a factor of 8. Our results suggest that the most likely candidate for the essential basic group affected by all mutations in the active site is a hydroxide ion stabilized by coordination to the essential Mg2+ ions. Analyzing our results using the structure recently obtained for E. coli PPase [Kankare et al. (1994) Protein Eng. 7, 823-830] led us to identify a group of residues, centered around Asp70 and including Tyr55, Asp65, Asp67, Asp102, and Lys104, that we believe binds the magnesium ions that are critical for the activity, possibly by stabilizing the essential hydroxide. Others, including Lys29, Arg43, and Lys142, are more spread out and more positively charged. They appear to be involved in binding substrate and product. Tyr55 is also a key part of the hydrophobic core of E. coli PPase; when it or residues that interact with it are conservatively mutated, there are changes in the overall structure of the enzyme as assayed by thermostability, hydrophobicity, or oligomeric structure.