Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) is a membrane-bound enzyme responsible for the catabolism of neuromodulatory fatty acid amides, including anandamide and oleamide. FAAH's primary structure identifies this enzyme as a member of a diverse group of alkyl amidases, known collectively as the "amidase signature family". At present, this enzyme family's catalytic mechanism remains poorly understood. In this study, we investigated the catalytic features of FAAH through mutagenesis, affinity labeling, and steady-state kinetic methods. In particular, we focused on the respective roles of three serine residues that are conserved in all amidase signature enzymes (S217, S218, and S241 in FAAH). Mutation of each of these serines to alanine resulted in a FAAH enzyme bearing significant catalytic defects, with the S217A and S218A mutants showing 2300- and 95-fold reductions in k(cat), respectively, and the S241A mutant exhibiting no detectable catalytic activity. The double S217A:S218A FAAH mutant displayed a 230 000-fold decrease in k(cat), supporting independent catalytic functions for these serine residues. Affinity labeling of FAAH with a specific nucleophile reactive inhibitor, ethoxy oleoyl fluorophosphonate, identified S241 as the enzyme's catalytic nucleophile. The pH dependence of FAAH's k(cat) and k(cat)/K(m) implicated a base involved in catalysis with a pK(a) of 7.9. Interestingly, mutation of each of FAAH's conserved histidines (H184, H358, and H449) generated active enzymes, indicating that FAAH does not contain a Ser-His-Asp catalytic triad commonly found in other mammalian serine hydrolytic enzymes. The unusual properties of FAAH identified here suggest that this enzyme, and possibly the amidase signature family as a whole, may hydrolyze amides by a novel catalytic mechanism.