We expressed the NH2-terminal domain of the multidomain, multifunctional enzyme, 10-formyltetrahydrofolate dehydrogenase (FDH), using a baculovirus expression system in insect cells. Expression of the 203-amino acid NH2-terminal domain (residues 1-203), which is 24-30% identical to a group of glycinamide ribonucleotide transformylases (EC 188.8.131.52), resulted in the appearance of insoluble recombinant protein apparently due to incorrect folding. The longer NH2-terminal recombinant protein (residues 1-310), which shares 32% identity with Escherichia coli L-methionyl-tRNA formyltransferase (EC 184.108.40.206), was expressed as a soluble protein. During expression, this protein was released from cells to the culture medium and was purified from the culture medium by 5-formyltetrahydrofolate-Sepharose affinity chromatography followed by chromatography on a Mono-Q column. We found that the purified NH2-terminal domain bears a folate binding site, possesses 10-formyltetrahydrofolate hydrolase activity, and exists as a monomer. Titration of tryptophan fluorescence showed that native FDH bound both the substrate of the reaction, 10-formyl-5, 8-dideazafolate, and the product of the reaction, 5,8-dideazafolate, with the same affinities as its NH2-terminal domain did and that both proteins bound the substrate with a 50-fold higher affinity than the product. Neither the NH2-terminal domain nor its mixture with the previously purified COOH-terminal domain had 10-formyltetrahydrofolate dehydrogenase activity. Formation of complexes between the COOH- and NH2-terminal domains also was not observed. We conclude that the 10-formyltetrahydrofolate dehydrogenase activity of FDH is a result of the action of the aldehyde dehydrogenase catalytic center residing in the COOH-terminal domain on the substrate bound in the NH2-terminal domain and that the intermediate domain is necessary to bring the two functional domains together in the correct orientation.