Protein kinases are important enzymes controlling the majority of cellular signaling events via a transfer of the γ-phosphate of ATP to a target protein. Even after many years of study, the mechanism of this reaction is still poorly understood. Among many factors that may be responsible for the 1011-fold rate enhancement due to this enzyme, the role of the conserved aspartate (Asp166) has been given special consideration. While the essential presence of Asp166 has been established by mutational studies, its function is still debated. The general base catalyst role assigned to Asp166 on the basis of its position in the active site has been brought into question by the pH dependence of the reaction rate, isotope measurements, and pre-steady-state kinetics. Recent semiempirical calculations have added to the controversy surrounding the role of Asp166 in the catalytic mechanism. No major role for Asp166 has been found in these calculations, which have predicted the reaction process consisting of an early transfer of a substrate proton onto the phosphate group. These conclusions were inconsistent with experimental observations. To address these differences between experimental results and theory with a more reliable computational approach and to provide a theoretical platform for understanding catalysis in this important enzyme family, we have carried out first-principles structural and dynamical calculations of the reaction process in cAPK kinase. To preserve the essential features of the reaction, representations of all of the key conserved residues (82 atoms) were included in the calculation. The structural calculations were performed using the local basis density functional (DFT) approach with both hybrid B3LYP and PBE96 generalized gradient approximations. This kind of calculation has been shown to yield highly accurate structural information for a large number of systems. The optimized reactant state structure is in good agreement with X-ray data. In contrast to semiempirical methods, the lowest energy product state places the substrate proton on Asp166. First-principles molecular dynamics simulations provide additional support for the stability of this product state. The latter also demonstrate that the proton transfer to Asp166 occurs at a point in the reaction where bond cleavage at the PO bridging position is already advanced. This mechanism is further supported by the calculated structure of the transition state in which the substrate hydroxyl group is largely intact. A metaphoshate-like structure is present in the transition state, which is consistent with the X-ray structures of transition state mimics. On the basis of the calculated structure of the transition state, it is estimated to be 85% dissociative. Our analysis also indicates an increase in the hydrogen bond strength between Asp166 and substrate hydroxyl and a small decrease in the bond strength of the latter in the transition state. In summary, our calculations demonstrate the importance of Asp166 in the enzymatic mechanism as a proton acceptor. However, the proton abstraction from the substrate occurs late in the reaction process. Thus, in the catalytic mechanism of cAPK protein kinase, Asp166 plays a role of a "proton trap" that locks the transferred phosphoryl group to the substrate. These results resolve prior inconsistencies between theory and experiment and bring new understanding of the role of Asp166 in the protein kinase catalytic mechanism. Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society.