Glycoside hydrolysis by retaining family 18 chitinases involves a catalytic acid (Glu) which is part of a conserved DXDXE sequence motif that spans strand four of a (βα)8 barrel (TIM barrel) structure. These glycoside hydrolases are unusual in that the positive charge emerging on the anomeric carbon after departure of the leaving group is stabilized by the substrate itself (the N-acetyl group of the distorted −1 sugar), rather than by a carboxylate group on the enzyme. We have studied seven conserved residues in the catalytic center of chitinase B from Serratia marcescens. Putative roles for these residues are proposed on the basis of the observed mutational effects, the pH-dependency of these effects, pKa calculations and available structural information. The results indicate that the pKa of the catalytic acid (Glu144) is ‘cycled’ during catalysis as a consequence of substrate-binding and release and, possibly, by a back and forth movement of Asp142 between Asp140 and Glu144. Rotation of Asp142 towards Glu144 also contributes to an essential distortion of the N-acetyl group of the −1 sugar. Two other conserved residues (Tyr10 and Ser93) are important because they stabilize the charge on Asp140 while Asp142 points towards Glu144. Asp215, lying opposite Glu144 on the other side of the scissile glycosidic bond, contributes to catalysis by promoting distortion of the −1 sugar and by increasing the pKa of the catalytic acid. The hydroxyl group of Tyr214 makes a major contribution to the positioning of the N-acetyl group of the −1 sugar. Taken together, the results show that catalysis in family 18 chitinases depends on a relatively large number of (partly mobile) residues that interact with each other and the substrate.