Ca(2+)-dependent protein kinases (CDPKs) are regulated by a C-terminal calmodulin-like domain (CaM-LD). The CaM-LD is connected to the kinase by a short junction sequence which contains a pseudosubstrate autoinhibitor. To understand how the CaM-LD regulates a CDPK, a recombinant CDPK (isoform CPK-1 from Arabidopsis, accession no. L14771) was made as a fusion protein in Escherichia coli. We show here that a truncated CDPK lacking a CaM-LD (e.g. mutant delta NC-26H) can be activated by exogenous calmodulin or an isolated CaM-LD (Kact approximately 2 microM). We propose that Ca2+ activation of a CDPK normally occurs through intramolecular binding of the CaM-LD to the junction. When the junction and CaM-LD are made as two separate polypeptides, the CaM-LD can bind the junction in a Ca(2+)-dependent fashion with a dissociation constant (KD) of 6 x 10(-6) M, as determined by kinetic binding analyses. When the junction and CaM-LD are tethered in a single polypeptide (e.g. in protein JC-1), their ability to engage in bimolecular binding is suppressed (e.g. the tethered CaM-LD cannot bind a separate junction). A mutation which disrupts the putative CaM-LD binding sequence (e.g. substitution LRV-1444 to DLPG) appears to block intramolecular binding, as indicated by the restored ability of a tethered CaM-LD to engage in bimolecular binding. This mutation, in the context of a full-length enzyme (mutant KJM46H), appears to block Ca2+ activation. Thus, a disruption of intramolecular binding correlates with a disruption of the Ca2+ activation mechanism. CDPKs provide the first example of a member of the calmodulin superfamily where a target binding sequence is located within the same polypeptide.