The carbon-13 NMR spectrum of oxaloacetate bound in the active site of citrate synthase has been obtained at 90.56 MHz. In the binary complex with enzyme, the positions of the resonances of oxaloacetate are shifted relative to those of the free ligand as follows: C-l (carboxylate), -2.5 ppm; C-2 (carbonyl), +4.3 ppm; C-3 (methylene), -0.6 ppm; C-4 (carboxylate), +1.3 ppm. The change observed in the carbonyl chemical shift is successively increased in ternary complexes with the product [coenzyme A (CoA)], a substrate analogue (S-acetonyl-CoA), and an acetyl-CoA enolate analogue (carboxy-methyl-CoA), reaching a value of +6.8 ppm from the free carbonyl resonance. Binary complexes are in intermediate to fast exchange on the NMR time scale with free oxaloacetate; ternary complexes are in slow exchange. Line widths of the methylene resonance in the ternary complexes suggest complete immobilization of oxaloacetate in the active site. Analysis of line widths in the binary complex suggests the existence of a dynamic equilibrium between two or more forms of bound oxaloacetate, primarily involving C-4. The changes in chemical shifts of the carbonyl carbon indicate strong polarization of the carbonyl bond or protonation of the carbonyl oxygen. Some of this carbonyl polarization occurs even in the binary complex. Development of positive charge on the carbonyl carbon enhances reactivity toward condensation with the carbanion/enolate of acetyl-CoA in the mechanism which has been postulated for this enzyme. The very large change in the chemical shift of the reacting carbonyl in the presence of an analogue of the enolate of acetyl-CoA supports this interpretation.