Two distinct spontaneous variants of the murine anti-digoxin hybridoma 26-10 were isolated by fluorescence-activated cell sorting for reduced affinity of surface antibody for antigen. Nucleotide and partial amino acid sequencing of the variant antibody variable regions revealed that 1 variant had a single amino acid substitution Lys for Asn at heavy chain position 35. The second variant antibody had 2 heavy chain substitutions Tyr for Asn at position 35, and Met for Arg at position 38. Mutagenesis experiments confirmed that the position 35 substitutions were solely responsible for the markedly reduced affinity of both variant antibodies. Several mutants with more conservative position 35 substitutions were engineered to ascertain the contribution of Asn 35 to the binding of digoxin to antibody 26-10. Replacement of Asn with Gln reduced affinity for digoxin 10-fold relative to the wild-type antibody, but maintained wild-type fine specificity for cardiac glycoside analogues. All other substitutions (Val, Thr, Leu, Ala, and Asp) reduced affinity by at least 90-fold and caused distinct shifts in fine specificity. The Ala mutant demonstrated greatly increased relative affinities for 16-acetylated haptens and haptens with a saturated lactone. The X-ray crystal structure of the 26-10 Fab in complex with digoxin (Jeffrey PD et al., 1993, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 9010310-10314) reveals that the position 35 Asn contacts hapten and forms hydrogen bonds with 2 other contact residues. The reductions in affinity of the position 35 mutants for digoxin are greater than expected based upon the small hapten contact area provided by the wild-type Asn. We therefore performed molecular modeling experiments which suggested that substitution of Gln or Asp can maintain these hydrogen bonds whereas the other substituted side chains cannot. The altered binding of the Asp mutant may be due to the introduction of a negative charge. The similarities in binding of the wild-type and Gln-mutant antibodies, however, suggest that these hydrogen bonds are important for maintaining the architecture of the binding site and therefore the affinity and specificity of this antibody. The Ala mutant eliminates the wild-type hydrogen bonding, and molecular modeling suggests that the reduced side-chain volume also provides space that can accommodate a congener with a 16-acetyl group or saturated lactone, accounting for the altered fine specificity of this antibody.