Escherichia coli dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR) has several flexible loops surrounding the active site that play a functional role in substrate and cofactor binding and in catalysis. We have used heteronuclear NMR methods to probe the loop conformations in solution in complexes of DHFR formed during the catalytic cycle. To facilitate the NMR analysis, the enzyme was labeled selectively with [(15)N]alanine. The 13 alanine resonances provide a fingerprint of the protein structure and report on the active site loop conformations and binding of substrate, product, and cofactor. Spectra were recorded for binary and ternary complexes of wild-type DHFR bound to the substrate dihydrofolate (DHF), the product tetrahydrofolate (THF), the pseudosubstrate folate, reduced and oxidized NADPH cofactor, and the inactive cofactor analogue 5,6-dihydroNADPH. The data show that DHFR exists in solution in two dominant conformational states, with the active site loops adopting conformations that closely approximate the occluded or closed conformations identified in earlier X-ray crystallographic analyses. A minor population of a third conformer of unknown structure was observed for the apoenzyme and for the disordered binary complex with 5,6-dihydroNADPH. The reactive Michaelis complex, with both DHF and NADPH bound to the enzyme, could not be studied directly but was modeled by the ternary folate:NADP(+) and dihydrofolate:NADP(+) complexes. From the NMR data, we are able to characterize the active site loop conformation and the occupancy of the substrate and cofactor binding sites in all intermediates formed in the extended catalytic cycle. In the dominant kinetic pathway under steady-state conditions, only the holoenzyme (the binary NADPH complex) and the Michaelis complex adopt the closed loop conformation, and all product complexes are occluded. The catalytic cycle thus involves obligatory conformational transitions between the closed and occluded states. Parallel studies on the catalytically impaired G121V mutant DHFR show that formation of the closed state, in which the nicotinamide ring of the cofactor is inserted into the active site, is energetically disfavored. The G121V mutation, at a position distant from the active site, interferes with coupled loop movements and appears to impair catalysis by destabilizing the closed Michaelis complex and introducing an extra step into the kinetic pathway.