Passage of precursor proteins through translocation contact sites of mitochondria was investigated by studying the import of a fusion protein consisting of the NH2-terminal 167 amino acids of yeast cytochrome b2 precursor and the complete mouse dihydrofolate reductase. Isolated mitochondria of Neurospora crassa readily imported the fusion protein. In the presence of methotrexate import was halted and a stable intermediate spanning both mitochondrial membranes at translocation contact sites accumulated. The complete dihydrofolate reductase moiety in this intermediate was external to the outer membrane, and the 136 amino acid residues of the cytochrome b2 moiety remaining after cleavage by the matrix processing peptidase spanned both outer and inner membranes. Removal of methotrexate led to import of the intermediate retained at the contact site into the matrix. Thus unfolding at the surface of the outer mitochondrial membrane is a prerequisite for passage through translocation contact sites. The membrane-spanning intermediate was used to estimate the number of translocation sites. Saturation was reached at 70 pmol intermediate per milligram of mitochondrial protein. This amount of translocation intermediates was calculated to occupy approximately 1% of the total surface of the outer membrane. The morphometrically determined area of close contact between outer and inner membranes corresponded to approximately 7% of the total outer membrane surface. Accumulation of the intermediate inhibited the import of other precursor proteins suggesting that different precursor proteins are using common translocation contact sites. We conclude that the machinery for protein translocation into mitochondria is present at contact sites in limited number.

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