alpha-Lytic protease is a bacterial serine protease of the trypsin family that is synthesized as a 39-kD preproenzyme (Silen, J. L., C. N. McGrath, K. R. Smith, and D. A. Agard. 1988. Gene (Amst.). 69: 237-244). The 198-amino acid mature protease is secreted into the culture medium by the native host, Lysobacter enzymogenes (Whitaker, D. R. 1970. Methods Enzymol. 19:599-613). Expression experiments in Escherichia coli revealed that the 166-amino acid pro region is transiently required either in cis (Silen, J. L., D. Frank, A. Fujishige, R. Bone, and D. A. Agard. 1989. J. Bacteriol. 171:1320-1325) or in trans (Silen, J. L., and D. A. Agard. 1989. Nature (Lond.). 341:462-464) for the proper folding and extracellular accumulation of the enzyme. The maturation process is temperature sensitive in E. coli; unprocessed precursor accumulates in the cells at temperatures above 30 degrees C (Silen, J. L., D. Frank, A. Fujishige, R. Bone, and D. A. Agard. 1989. J. Bacteriol. 171:1320-1325). Here we show that full-length precursor produced at nonpermissive temperatures is tightly associated with the E. coli outer membrane. The active site mutant Ser 195----Ala (SA195), which is incapable of self-processing, also accumulates as a precursor in the outer membrane, even when expressed at permissive temperatures. When the protease domain is expressed in the absence of the pro region, the misfolded, inactive protease also cofractionates with the outer membrane. However, when the folding requirement for either wild-type or mutant protease domains is provided by expressing the pro region in trans, both are efficiently secreted into the extracellular medium. Attempts to separate folding and secretion functions by extensive deletion mutagenesis within the pro region were unsuccessful. Taken together, these results suggest that only properly folded and processed forms of alpha-lytic protease are efficiently transported to the medium.