In a new strategy for labeling the active sites of serine proteinases with fluorescence probes (Bock, P. E. (1988) Biochemistry 27, 6633-6639), a thioester peptide chloromethyl ketone inhibitor is incorporated into the enzyme active center and used to produce a unique thiol group which provides a site for selective chemical modification with any one of many thiol-reactive fluorescence probes. This approach was developed to increase the opportunities for identifying fluorescent proteinase derivatives that act as reporters of binding interactions by allowing a large number of derivatives, representing a broad range of probe spectral properties, to be readily prepared. In the studies described here, the specificity of the labeling approach was evaluated quantitatively for the labeling of human alpha and beta/gamma-thrombin with the thioester peptide chloromethyl ketones, N alpha-[(acetylthio)acetyl]-D-Phe-Pro-Arg-CH2Cl and N alpha-[(acetylthio)acetyl]-D-Phe-Phe-Arg-CH2Cl, and the thiol-reactive fluorescence probe, 5-(iodoacetamido)fluorescein. Irreversible inactivation of thrombin by the inhibitors was accompanied by incorporation of 0.98 +/- 0.06 mol/mol of the thioester group into the active site, independent of a 470-fold difference between the thioester peptide chloromethyl ketones in the bimolecular rate constants of alpha-thrombin affinity labeling. Subsequent mild treatment of the covalent thrombin-inhibitor complexes with NH2OH in the presence of 5-(iodoacetamido)fluorescein resulted in generation of the thiol group together with its selective modification and incorporation of 0.96 +/- 0.07 mol of probe/mol of active sites. The incorporated label was localized to a 9000 molecular weight region of alpha and beta/gamma-thrombin containing the catalytic-site histidine residue. Evaluation of competing, side reactions showed that they did not significantly compromise the active site specificity of labeling. These results demonstrated equivalent, active-site-selective fluorescence probe labeling of alpha and beta/gamma-thrombin by use of either of the thioester peptide chloromethyl ketones, with a site specificity of greater than or equal to 94%.