Calbindin D9k is a small EF-hand protein that binds two calcium ions with positive cooperativity. The molecular basis of cooperativity for the binding pathway where the first ion binds in the N-terminal site (1) is investigated by NMR experiments on the half-saturated state of the N56A mutant, which exhibits sequential yet cooperative binding (Linse S, Chazin WJ, 1995, Protein Sci 4:1038-1044). Analysis of calcium-induced changes in chemical shifts, amide proton exchange rates, and NOEs indicates that ion binding to the N-terminal binding loop causes significant changes in conformation and/or dynamics throughout the protein. In particular, all three parameters indicate that the hydrophobic core undergoes a change in packing to a conformation very similar to the calcium-loaded state. These results are similar to those observed for the (Cd2+)1 state of the wild-type protein, a model for the complementary half-saturated state with an ion bound in the C-terminal site (II). Thus, with respect to cooperativity in either of the binding pathways, binding of the first ion drives the conformation and dynamics of the protein far toward the (Ca2+)2 state, thereby facilitating binding of the second ion. Comparison with the half-saturated state of the analogous E65Q mutant confirms that mutation of this critical bidentate calcium ligand at position 12 of the consensus EF-hand binding loop causes very significant structural perturbations. This result has important implications regarding numerous studies that have utilized mutation of this critical residue for site deactivation.