Reactive immunization has emerged as a new tool for the study of biological catalysis. A powerful application resulted in catalytic antibodies that use an enamine mechanism akin to that used by the class I aldolases. With regard to the evolution of enzyme mechanisms, we investigated the utility of an enamine pathway for the allylic rearrangement exemplified by Delta5-3-ketosteroid isomerase (KSI; EC 188.8.131.52). Our aldolase antibodies were found to catalyze the isomerization of both steroid model compounds and steroids. The kinetic and chemical studies showed that the antibodies afforded rate accelerations up to a factor of 10(4) by means of an enamine mechanism in which imine formation was the rate-determining step. In light of our observations and the enzyme studies by other workers, we suggest that an enamine pathway could have been an early, viable KSI mechanism. Although this pathway is amenable to optimization for increased catalytic power, it appears that certain factors precluded its evolution in known KSI enzymes.