The thiol tripeptide glutathione (GSH; gammaGlu-Cys-Gly) is very abundant in legume nodules where it performs multiple functions that are critical for optimal nitrogen fixation. Some legume nodules contain another tripeptide, homoglutathione (hGSH; gammaGlu-Cys-betaAla), in addition to or instead of GSH. We have isolated from a pea (Pisum sativum L.) nodule library a cDNA, GSHS2, that is expressed in nodules but not in leaves. This cDNA was overexpressed in insect cells and its protein product was identified as a highly active and specific hGSH synthetase. The enzyme, the first of this type to be completely purified, is predicted to be a homodimeric cytosolic protein. It shows a specific activity of 3400 nmol hGSH min-1 mg-1 protein with a standard substrate concentration (5 mM beta-alanine) and Km values of 1.9 mM for beta-alanine and 104 mM for glycine. The specificity constant (Vmax/Km) shows that the pure enzyme is 57.3-fold more specific for beta-alanine than for glycine. Southern blot analysis revealed that the gene is present as a single copy in the pea genome and that there are homologous genes in other legumes. We conclude that the synthesis of hGSH in pea nodules is catalysed by a specific hGSH synthetase and not by a GSH synthetase with broad substrate specificity.