The zinc contents of fragments of Escherichia coli glutamyl-tRNA synthetase, as well as the conservation of the CYC sequence only in zinc-containing glutamyl-tRNA synthetases, suggested that the 98CYCX24-CRHSHEHHADDEPC138 includes some or all residues involved in binding its zinc atom (Liu, J., Lin, S.-X., Blochet, J.-E., Pézolet, M., and Lapointe, J. (1993) Biochemistry 32, 11390-11396). Extended x-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS) shows that this zinc atom has a four-coordinate non-planar coordination environment with 3 sulfur and 1 nitrogen atoms with bond lengths, respectively, 2.37 +/- 0.02 A and 2.01 +/- 0.02 A, presumably belonging to 3 cysteine residues and 1 histidine residue. Conservative replacement of each histidine and cysteine residue of the 98C-138C segment, respectively, with glutamine (Q) and serine (S), yields variants H129Q, H131Q, H132Q, and C138S (which sustain the growth at 42 degrees C of E. coli JP1449, whose glutamyl-tRNA synthetase is thermosensitive) and C98S, C100S, C125S, and H127Q (which do not). The amount of this enzyme in these mutants is at least 1 order of magnitude larger than that in a wild type strain; however, no glutamyl-tRNA synthetase activity is detectable in extracts of the variants C100S and C125S, whereas its specific activity in those of C98S and H127Q is about 10-fold lower than in cells overproducing the wild type enzyme or the variants H129Q, H131Q, H132Q, and C138S. These results indicate that the zinc atom present in E. coli glutamyl-tRNA synthetase is bound by the 2 evolutionarily conserved cysteines at positions 98 and 100, and by Cys125 and His127. Molecular modeling of the N-terminal half of this enzyme, using the known structure of E. coli glutaminyl-tRNA synthetase, supports this conclusion and suggests that the 98C-127H segment does not have the characteristics of the classical zinc fingers.