The class II Escherichia coli alanine tRNA synthetase aminoacylates RNA miniduplexes, which reconstruct the acceptor end of alanine tRNA with the critical G3:U70 base pair. A benzophenone photoaffinity label attached adjacent to G3:U70 in a miniduplex substrate was previously cross-linked to a long enzyme peptide that begins at Gly161 between the class-defining motifs 2 and 3 [Musier-Forsyth, K., & Schimmel, P. (1994) Biochemistry 33, 773-779]. To identify side chains in this peptide that potentially contribute hydrogen bonding or catalytic determinants for the RNA-dependent step of the aminoacylation reaction, peptide functional side chains that are conserved among sequenced alanine enzymes (Asp, Asn, Arg, Glu, Gln, and Tyr) were individually replaced. Of the 21 mutant proteins so generated, one was identified that was not viable even though it accumulated in vivo. This Asp235-->Ala mutant enzyme is defective in the rate of transfer of the activated amino acid to the 3'-end of the RNA substrate. The conserved Asp235 is at the beginning of motif 3. By comparison with the crystal structure of the related class II yeast aspartate tRNA synthetase complexed with tRNA(Asp) (Cavarelli et al., 1993), we suggest that D235 is not in direct contact with acceptor helix base pairs such as G3:U70. Instead, we propose that D235 contributes to transfer-step interactions at the 3'-end of alanine tRNA. Because D235 in alanine tRNA synthetase is at the beginning of one of the conserved motifs that define class II tRNA synthetases, this region of the structure may in general be important for the transfer step.