1-Bromovinyl (I), Z-2-bromovinyl (II), 1,2-dibromoethyl (III), and a series of 4-(halomethyl)-2-nitrophenyl (IVa-c) diethyl phosphate esters were examined as substrates and mechanism-based inhibitors for the bacterial phosphotriesterase. All of these compounds were found to act as substrates for the enzyme. Inhibitor I rapidly inactivated the enzyme within 1 min, giving a partition ratio of 230. The newly formed covalent adduct with inhibitor I was susceptible to hydrolysis at elevated values of pH and dissociation by NH2OH. Azide was not able to protect the enzyme from inactivation with inhibitor I, implying that the reactive species was not released into solution prior to the inactivation event. The reactive species was proposed to be either an acyl bromide or a ketene intermediate formed by the enzymatic hydrolysis of inhibitor I. Compounds II and III were shown to be relatively poor substrates of phosphotriesterase and they did not induce any significant inactivation of the enzyme. The inhibitor, 4-(bromomethyl)- 2-nitrophenyl diethyl phosphate (IVa), was found to irreversibly inactivate the enzyme with a K(I) = 7.9 mM and k(inact) = 1.2 min-1 at pH 9.0. There was no effect on the rate of inactivation upon the addition of the exogenous nucleophiles, azide, and NH2OH. The species responsible for the covalent modification of the enzyme by IVa was most likely a quinone methide formed by the elimination of bromide from the phenolic intermediate. NMR experiments demonstrated that the quinone methide did not accumulate in solution. The chloro (IVb) and fluoro (IVc) analogues did not inactivate the enzyme. These results suggest that the elimination of the halide ion from the phenolic intermediate largely determines the partition ratio for inactivation.