Antibody 21D8, which was elicited with a naphthalene-1,5-disulfonate hapten, catalyzes the medium-sensitive decarboxylation of 5-nitro-3-carboxybenzisoxazole. Structural studies on the hapten-antibody complex show that the active site contains two anion binding pockets separated by a hydrophobic region. To gain further insight into the ligand binding and catalytic mechanism of 21D8, six site-directed mutants were prepared, four for investigating the role of each of the two hapten sulfonate binding sites and two for examining packing interactions between bound ligands and the binding pocket. With the exception of an Arg(L46)Met substitution in the more deeply buried sulfonate binding pocket, modification of the active site resulted in reductions in catalytic efficiency (k(cat)/k(uncat)), ranging between 3- and 23-fold. Importantly, and contrary to predictions based on computational docking experiments, the differential effects of the individual mutations on the K(m), K(TS), and K(product) parameters suggest that only substrate binding modes which place the carboxylate group in the more solvent-exposed sulfonate binding site are catalytically relevant. Such an orientation would permit a potentially significant interaction between the developing oxyanion in the transition state and the side chain of Arg(L96). Incomplete desolvation of the carboxylate in this orientation may also help explain the modest efficiency of 21D8 compared to the most accelerating aprotic dipolar organic solvents.