We report an analysis of the reaction mechanism of ornithine 4,5-aminomutase, an adenosylcobalamin (AdoCbl)- and pyridoxal L-phosphate (PLP)-dependent enzyme that catalyzes the 1,2-rearrangement of the terminal amino group of D-ornithine to generate (2R,4S)-2,4-diaminopentanoic acid. We show by stopped-flow absorbance studies that binding of the substrate D-ornithine or the substrate analogue D-2,4-diaminobutryic acid (DAB) induces rapid homolysis of the AdoCbl Co-C bond (781 s(-1), D-ornithine; 513 s(-1), DAB). However, only DAB results in the stable formation of a cob(II)alamin species. EPR spectra of DAB and [2,4,4-(2)H(3)]DAB bound to holo-ornithine 4,5-aminomutase suggests strong electronic coupling between cob(II)alamin and a radical form of the substrate analog. Loading of substrate/analogue onto PLP (i.e. formation of an external aldimine) is also rapid (532 s(-1), D-ornithine; 488 s(-1), DAB). In AdoCbl-depleted enzyme, formation of the external aldimine occurs over long time scales (approximately 50 s) and occurs in three resolvable kinetic phases, identifying four distinct spectral intermediates (termed A-D). We infer that these represent the internal aldimine (lambda(max) 416 nm; A), two different unliganded PLP states of the enzyme (lambda(max) at 409 nm; B and C), and the external aldimine (lambda(max) 426 nm; D). An imine linkage with d-ornithine and DAB generates both tautomeric forms of the external aldimine, but with D-ornithine the equilibrium is shifted toward the ketoimine state. The influence of this equilibrium distribution of prototropic isomers in driving homolysis and stabilizing radical intermediate states is discussed. Our work provides the first detailed analysis of radical-based catalysis in this Class III AdoCbl-dependent enzyme.