The interactions between the Fab and single-chain Fv (scFv) fragments of an antibody (NC10) and its antigen, influenza virus neuraminidase, were analysed in the crystal structures of the Fab-neuraminidase and scFv-neuraminidase complexes. To investigate the contribution to binding made by cavities, salt links and hydrogen bonds in the antibody-antigen interface, 14 single amino acid replacements were made at six contact residues in the scFv fragment by site-directed mutagenesis. The binding affinity of each mutant scFv antibody for neuraminidase was determined with a BIAcore optical biosensor. Four of the mutations resulted in large changes in the free energy of binding to neuraminidase (deltadeltaG > 1 kcal/mol) and together may account for approximately 70% of the free energy of binding. Hence these data support the theory that a small number of residues form the 'functional epitope' and are most important for binding of NC10 to neuraminidase. The salt link between antibody residue (Asp)H56 and (Lys)N432 from neuraminidase was demonstrated to be important for affinity, since substitution of (Asp)H56 with Asn caused a large reduction in the free energy of binding (deltadeltaG = +2.8 kcal/mol). Hydrogen bonds provided by (Tyr)L32 and (Asp)H56 were also important for binding: mutation of (Tyr)L32 to Phe resulted in a significant reduction in binding affinity (deltadeltaG = +1.7 kcal/mol). Disruption of hydrophobic interactions (van der Waals contacts) led to significant reductions in affinity also ((Tyr)H99 to Ala, deltadeltaG = +1.5 kcal/mol; (Leu)L94 to Ala, deltadeltaG > +3.0 kcal/mol). An attempt to increase binding affinity by filling a cavity in the interface with a larger antibody side chain was unsuccessful, as the free energy gained by new antibody-antigen interactions did not compensate for the removal of cavity-bound water molecules.