We have used a hybrid precursor protein to study the pathway of protein import into chloroplasts. This hybrid (pS/protA) consists of the precursor to the small subunit of Rubisco (pS) fused to the IgG binding domains of staphylococcal protein A. The pS/protA is efficiently imported into isolated chloroplasts and is processed to its mature form (S/protA). In addition to the mature stromal form, two intermediates in the pathway of pS/protA import were identified at early time points in the import reaction. The first intermediate represents unprocessed pS/protA bound to the outer surface of the chloroplast envelope and is analogous to a previously characterized form of pS that is specifically bound to the chloroplast surface and can be subsequently translocated in the stroma (Cline, K., M. Werner-Washburne, T. H. Lubben, and K. Keegstra. 1985. J. Biol. Chem. 260:3691-3696.) The second intermediate represents a partially translocated form of the precursor that remains associated with the envelope membrane. This form is processed to mature S/protA, but remains susceptible to exogenously added protease in intact chloroplasts. We conclude that the envelope associated S/protA is spanning both the outer and inner chloroplast membranes en route to the stroma. Biochemical and immunochemical localization of the two translocation intermediates indicates that both forms are exposed at the surface of the outer membrane at sites where the outer and inner membrane are closely apposed. These contact zones appear to be organized in a reticular network on the outer envelope. We propose a model for protein import into chloroplasts that has as its central features two distinct protein conducting channels in the outer and inner envelope membranes, each gated open by a distinct subdomain of the pS signal sequence.

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