Reactivity of surface lysyl residues of proteins with a broad range of chemical agents has been proposed to be dependent on the catalytic microenvironment of the residue. We have investigated the acetylation of wild type ubiquitin and of the UbH68N mutant to evaluate the potential contribution of His-68 to the reactivity of Lys-6, which is about 4 A distant. These studies were performed using [1-(13)C]acetyl salicylate or [1,1'-(13)C(2)]acetic anhydride, and the acetylated products were detected by two-dimensional heteronuclear multiple quantum coherence spectroscopy. The results demonstrate that His-68 makes a positive contribution to the rate of acetylation of Lys-6 by labeled aspirin. Additionally, a pair of transient resonances is observed after treatment of wild type ubiquitin with the labeled acetic anhydride but not upon treatment of the H68N mutant. These resonances are assigned to the acetylated His-68 residue. The loss of intensity of the acetylhistidine resonances is accompanied by an increase in intensity of the acetyl-Lys-6 peak, supporting the existence of a transacetylation process between the acetylhistidine 68 and lysine 6 residues located on the protein surface. Hence, this may be the first direct demonstration of a catalytic intermediate forming on the protein surface.