Alignment-guided mutagenesis was used to create an inactive, but toxic, aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase. An Asp-96-->Ala (D96A) replacement in the nucleotide binding fold of the class I Escherichia coli isoleucyl-tRNA synthetase inactivates the enzyme without disrupting its competence for binding isoleucine tRNA. Expression of plasmid-encoded mutant enzyme in a cell with a wild-type ileS chromosomal allele resulted in cell death. Introduction of a second K732T substitution previously shown to weaken tRNA binding gives an inactive D96A/K732T double mutant. Expression of the double mutant is not lethal to E. coli. D96A but not the double mutant significantly inhibited in vitro charging of isoleucine tRNA by the wild-type enzyme. The results suggest a dominant tRNA binding-dependent arrest of cell growth caused by a reduction in the pool of a specific tRNA. Specific tRNA binding drugs may have therapeutic applications for treatment of microbial pathogens.