Monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) have been used to study structure-function relationships of (R)-3-hydroxybutyrate dehydrogenase (BDH) (EC 126.96.36.199), a lipid-requiring mitochondrial membrane enzyme with an absolute and specific requirement for phosphatidylcholine (PC) for enzymic activity. The purified enzyme (apoBDH, devoid of phospholipid and thereby inactive) can be re-activated with preformed phospholipid vesicles containing PC or by short-chain soluble PC. Five of six mAbs cross-react with BDH from bovine heart and rat liver, including two mAbs to conformational epitopes. One mAb was found to be specific for the C-terminal sequence of BDH and served to: (1) map endopeptidase cleavage and epitope sites on BDH; and (2) demonstrate that the C-terminus is essential for the activity of BDH. Carboxypeptidase cleavage of only a few (< or = 14) C-terminal amino acids from apoBDH (as detected by the loss of C-terminal epitope for mAb 3-10A) prevents activation by either bilayer or soluble PC. Further, for BDH in bilayers containing PC, the C-terminus is protected from carboxy-peptidase cleavage, whereas in bilayers devoid of PC the C-terminus is cleaved, and subsequent activation by PC is precluded. We conclude that: (1) the C-terminus of BDH is essential for enzymic activity, consistent with the prediction, from primary sequence analysis, that the PC-binding site is in the C-terminal domain of BDH; and (2) the allosteric activation of BDH by PC in bilayers protects the C-terminus from carboxypeptidase cleavage, indicative of a PC-induced conformational change in the enzyme.