Escherichia coli alanyl-tRNA synthetase contains the sequence Cys-X2-Cys-X6-His-X2-His. This motif is distinct from the zinc fingers of DNA-binding proteins but has some similarity to the Cys-X2-Cys-X4-His-X4-Cys zinc-binding motif of retroviral gag proteins, where it has a role in RNA packaging. In Ala-tRNA synthetase, this sequence is located in an amino-terminal domain which has the site for docking the acceptor end of the tRNA near the bound aminoacyl adenylate and is immediately adjacent in the sequence to the location of a mutation that affects the specificity of tRNA recognition. We show here that Ala-tRNA synthetase contains approximately 1 mol of zinc/mol of polypeptide and that addition of the zinc chelator 1,10-phenanthroline inhibits its aminoacylation activity. Conservative mutations of specific cysteine or histidine residues in the "Cys-His box" destabilize and inactivate the enzyme, whereas mutations of intervening amino acids do not inactivate. The possibility that this motif can bind zinc (or cobalt) was demonstrated with a synthetic 22 amino acid peptide that is based on the sequence of the alanine enzyme. The peptide-cobalt complex has the spectral characteristics of tetrahedral coordination geometry. The results establish that the Cys-His box motif of Ala-tRNA synthetase has the potential to form a specific complex with zinc (at least in the context of a synthetic peptide analogue) and suggest that this motif is important for enzyme stability/activity.