Human serum transferrin is an iron-binding and -transport protein which carries iron from the blood stream into various cells. Iron is held in two deep clefts located in the N- and C-lobes by coordinating to four amino acid ligands, Asp 63, Tyr 95, Tyr 188, and His 249 (N-lobe numbering), and to two oxygens from carbonate. We have previously reported the effect on the iron- binding properties of the N-lobe following mutation of the ligands Asp 63, Tyr 95, and Tyr 188. Here we report the profound functional changes which result from mutating His 249 to Ala, Glu, or Gln. The results are consistent with studies done in lactoferrin which showed that the histidine ligand is critical for the stability of the iron-binding site [H. Nicholson, B. F. Anderson, T. Bland, S.C. Shewry, J. W. Tweedie, and E. N. Baker (1997) Biochemistry 36, 341-346]. In the mutant H249A, the histidine ligand is disabled, resulting in a dramatic reduction in the kinetic stability of the protein toward loss of iron. The H249E mutant releases iron three times faster than wild-type protein but shows significant changes in both EPR spectra and the binding of anion. This appears to be the net effect of the metal ligand substitution from a neutral histidine residue to a negative glutamate residue and the disruption of the 'dilysine trigger' [MacGillivray, R. T. A., Bewley, M. C., Smith, C. A., He, Q.-Y., Mason, A. B., Woodworth, R. C., and Baker, E. N. (2000) Biochemistry 39, 1211-1216]. In the H249Q mutant, Gln 249 appears not to directly contact the iron, given the similarity in the spectroscopic properties and the lability of iron release of this mutant to the H249A mutant. Further evidence for this idea is provided by the preference of both the H249A and H249Q mutants for nitrilotriacetate rather than carbonate in binding iron, probably because NTA is able to provide a third ligation partner. An intermediate species has been identified during the kinetic interconversion between the NTA and carbonate complexes of the H249A mutant. Thus, mutation of the His 249 residue does not abolish iron binding to the transferrin N-lobe but leads to the appearance of novel iron- binding sites of varying structure and stability.