Metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluRs) are G-protein-coupled glutamate receptors that subserve a number of diverse functions in the central nervous system. The large extracellular amino-terminal domains (ATDs) of mGluRs are homologous to the periplasmic binding proteins in bacteria. In this study, a region in the ATD of the mGluR4 subtype of mGluR postulated to contain the ligand-binding pocket was explored by site-directed mutagenesis using a molecular model of the tertiary structure of the ATD as a guiding tool. Although the conversion of Arg(78), Ser(159), or Thr(182) to Ala did not affect the level of protein expression or cell-surface expression, all three mutations severely impaired the ability of the receptor to bind the agonist L-[(3)H]amino-4-phosphonobutyric acid. Mutation of other residues within or in close proximity to the proposed binding pocket produced either no effect (Ser(157) and Ser(160)) or a relatively modest effect (Ser(181)) on ligand affinity compared with the Arg(78), Ser(159), and Thr(182) mutations. Based on these experimental findings, together with information obtained from the model in which the glutamate analog L-serine O-phosphate (L-SOP) was "docked" into the binding pocket, we suggest that the hydroxyl groups on the side chains of Ser(159) and Thr(182) of mGluR4 form hydrogen bonds with the alpha-carboxyl and alpha-amino groups on L-SOP, respectively, whereas Arg(78) forms an electrostatic interaction with the acidic side chains of L-SOP or glutamate. The conservation of Arg(78), Ser(159), and Thr(182) in all members of the mGluR family indicates that these amino acids may be fundamental recognition motifs for the binding of agonists to this class of receptors.