Rat liver phenylalanine hydroxylase was expressed in both Escherichia coli and the Spodoptera frugiperda insect cell line, Sf9. Recombinant enzyme from E. coli was inactive and contained less than 0.1 iron atom/subunit. In contrast, recombinant enzyme expressed in Sf9 cells using a baculovirus vector was active and identical in several properties to phenylalanine hydroxylase from rat liver: the Km for 6-methyltetrahydropterin was 39 microM (compared with 35 microM for the rat liver enzyme), 1 atom of iron was "associated" per enzyme subunit, and electron paramagnetic resonance spectra showed that iron was distributed within two distinct environments. Putative iron-binding sites of phenylalanine hydroxylase were studied by mutating either histidine 284 or 289 to serine and expressing these mutant enzymes (PAH-H284S and PAH-H289S) in Sf9 cells. Mutants were expressed at levels similar to wild-type PAH, but contained < or = 0.1 iron/subunit and were inactive. Thus, both His284 and His289 apparently are required for iron binding and hydroxylation activity.