Nitric oxide synthase (NOS) catalyzes the oxidation of L-arginine to citrulline and nitric oxide. C415H and C415A mutants of the neuronal isoform of NOS (nNOS) were expressed in a baculovirus system and purified to homogeneity for spectral analysis and activity measurements. UV-visible spectra of each mutant lacked an observable Soret peak, suggesting that neither mutant contained heme. When reduced in the presence of CO, however, a small Soret centered at 417 nm could be detected for the C415H mutant, further supporting the assignment of C415 as the axial ligand to the heme. In addition to a deficiency in bound heme, neither mutant had any detectable bound tetrahydrobiopterin, as compared to wild-type enzyme, which had a ratio of 0.84 mol of bound pteridine:1 mol of nNOS 160 kDa subunit. The C415H mutant contained bound FAD and FMN at levels of 1.0 +/- 0.1 and 0.9 +/- 0.1 mol/mol of nNOS subunit, respectively. UV-visible spectra of both nNOS mutants retained the distinctive absorbance due to tightly associated oxidized flavin prosthetic groups. Further, the spectra suggested the presence of a neutral flavin semiquinone. Ferricyanide oxidation of the C415A mutant yielded a spectrum that was essentially that of oxidized flavin. Ferricyanide titration showed that the C415A mutant contained approximately 1 reducing equiv. Circular dichroism spectra suggested that each mutant was folded properly, in that both spectra were found to be essentially identical to the spectrum of wild-type nNOS. Neither mutant could synthesize nitric oxide, and neither mutant had the ability to oxidize NADPH unless an exogenous electron acceptor was added. The rate of cytochrome c reduction by each mutant was found to be slightly less, but very similar to the rate (approximately 20 mumol mg-1 min-1) observed with wild-type nNOS. In all cases, the rate of cytochrome c reduction increased approximately 15-fold with the addition of calmodulin. Overall, these spectral and activity data suggest that C415 is the axial heme ligand and that a point mutation at C415 prevents binding of heme and tetrahydrobiopterin without interfering with the global folding or the reductase function of nNOS.