The cytoplasmically synthesized precursor of the mitochondrial matrix enzyme, ornithine transcarbamylase (OTC), is targeted to mitochondria by its NH2-terminal leader peptide. We previously established through mutational analysis that the midportion of the OTC leader peptide is functionally required. In this article, we report that study of additional OTC precursors, altered in either a site-directed or random manner, reveals that (a) the midportion, but not the NH2-terminal half, is sufficient by itself to direct import, (b) the functional structure in the midportion is unlikely to be an amphiphilic alpha-helix, (c) the four arginines in the leader peptide contribute collectively to import function by conferring net positive charge, and (d) surprisingly, proteolytic processing of the leader peptide does not require the presence of a specific primary structure at the site of cleavage, in order to produce the mature OTC subunit.

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