Formaldehyde (HCHO), a strong electrophile and a rapid and reversible inhibitor of hydrogen production by [FeFe]-hydrogenases, is used to identify the point in the catalytic cycle at which a highly reactive metal-hydrido species is formed. Investigations of the reaction of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii [FeFe]-hydrogenase with formaldehyde using pulsed-EPR techniques including electron-nuclear double resonance spectroscopy establish that formaldehyde binds close to the active site. Density functional theory calculations support an inhibited super-reduced state having a short Fe-(13)C bond in the 2Fe subsite. The adduct forms when HCHO is available to compete with H(+) transfer to a vacant, nucleophilic Fe site: had H(+) transfer already occurred, the reaction of HCHO with the Fe-hydrido species would lead to methanol, release of which is not detected. Instead, Fe-bound formaldehyde is a metal-hydrido mimic, a locked, inhibited form analogous to that in which two electrons and only one proton have transferred to the H-cluster. The results provide strong support for a mechanism in which the fastest pathway for H2 evolution involves two consecutive proton transfer steps to the H-cluster following transfer of a second electron to the active site.