Although agonists are thought to occupy binding pockets within the seven-helix core of serpentine receptors, the topography of these binding pockets and the conformational changes responsible for receptor activation are poorly understood. To identify the ligand binding pocket in the receptor for complement factor 5a (C5aR), we assessed binding affinities of hexapeptide ligands, each mutated at a single position, for seven mutant C5aRs, each mutated at a single position in the putative ligand binding site. In ChaW (an antagonist) and W5Cha (an agonist), the side chains at position 5 are tryptophan and cyclohexylalanine, respectively. Comparisons of binding affinities indicated that the hexapeptide residue at this position interacts with two C5aR residues, Ile-116 (helix III) and Val-286 (helix VII); in a C5aR model these two side chains point toward one another. Both the I116A and the V286A mutations markedly increased binding affinity of W5Cha but not that of ChaW. Moreover, ChaW, the antagonist hexapeptide, acted as a full agonist on the I116A mutant. These results argue that C5aR residues Ile-116 and Val-286 interact with the side chain at position 5 of the hexapeptide ligand to form an activation switch. Based on this and previous work, we present a docking model for the hexapeptide within the C5aR binding pocket. We propose that agonists induce a small change in the relative orientations of helices III and VII and that these helices work together to allow movement of helix VI away from the receptor core, thereby triggering G protein activation.