The three-dimensional structure in solution of the alpha-neurotoxin from the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis polylepis) has been determined by nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. A high quality structure for this 60-residue protein was obtained from 656 NOE distance constraints and 143 dihedral angle constraints, using the distance geometry program DIANA for the structure calculation and AMBER for restrained energy minimization. For a group of 20 conformers used to represent the solution structure, the average root-mean-square deviation value calculated for the polypeptide backbone heavy atoms relative to the mean structure was 0.45 A. The protein consists of a core region from which three finger-like loops extend outwards. It includes a short, two-stranded antiparallel beta-sheet of residues 1-5 and 13-17, a three-stranded antiparallel beta-sheet involving residues 23-31, 34-42 and 51-55, and four disulfide bridges in the core region. There is also extensive non-regular hydrogen bonding between the carboxy-terminal tail of the polypeptide chain and the rest of the core region. Comparison with the crystal structure of erabutoxin-b indicates that the structure of alpha-neurotoxin is quite similar to other neurotoxin structures, but that local structural differences are seen in regions thought to be important for binding of neurotoxins to the acetylcholine receptor. For two regions of the alpha-neurotoxin structure there is evidence for an equilibrium between multiple conformations, which might be related to conformational rearrangements upon binding to the receptor. Overall, the alpha-neurotoxin presents itself as a protein with a stable core and flexible surface areas that interact with the acetylcholine receptor in such a way that high affinity binding is achieved by conformational rearrangements of the deformable regions of the neurotoxin structure.