The putative gene of Plasmodium vivax serine hydroxymethyltransferase (PvSHMT; EC 184.108.40.206) was cloned and expressed in Escherichia coli. The purified enzyme was shown to be a dimeric protein with a monomeric molecular mass of 49 kDa. PvSHMT has a maximum absorption peak at 422 nm with a molar absorption coefficient of 6370 M(-1) x cm(-1). The K(d) for binding of the enzyme and pyridoxal-5-phosphate was 0.14 +/- 0.01 microM. An alternative assay for measuring the tetrahydrofolate-dependent SHMT activity based on the coupled reaction with 5,10-methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (EC 220.127.116.11) from E. coli was developed. PvSHMT uses a ternary-complex mechanism with a k(cat) value of 0.98 +/- 0.06 s(-1) and K(m) values of 0.18 +/- 0.03 and 0.14 +/- 0.02 mM for L-serine and tetrahydrofolate, respectively. The optimum pH of the SHMT reaction was 8.0 and an Arrhenius's plot showed a transition temperature of 19 degrees C. Besides L-serine, PvSHMT forms an external aldimine complex with D-serine, L-alanine, L-threonine and glycine. PvSHMT also catalyzes the tetrahydrofolate-independent retro-aldol cleavage of 3-hydroxy amino acids. Although L-serine is a physiological substrate for SHMT in the tetrahydrofolate-dependent reaction, PvSHMT can also use D-serine. In the absence of tetrahydrofolate at high pH, PvSHMT forms an enzyme-quinonoid complex with D-serine, but not with L-serine, whereas SHMT from rabbit liver was reported to form an enzyme-quinonoid complex with L-serine. The substrate specificity difference between PvSHMT and the mammalian enzyme indicates the dissimilarity between their active sites, which could be exploited for the development of specific inhibitors against PvSHMT.