The recently identified bacterial Tat pathway is capable of exporting proteins with a peculiar twin-arginine signal peptide in folded conformation independently of the Sec machinery. It is structurally and mechanistically similar to the delta pH-dependent pathway used for importing chloroplast proteins into the thylakoid. The tat genes are not ubiquitously present and are absent from half of the completely sequenced bacterial genomes. The presence of the tat genes seems to correlate with genome size and with the presence of important enzymes with a twin-arginine signal peptide. A minimal Tat system requires a copy of tatA and a copy of tatC. The composition and gene order of a tat locus are generally conserved within the same taxonomy group but vary considerably to other groups, which would exclude an acquisition of the Tat system by recent horizontal gene transfer. The tat genes are also found in the genomes of chloroplasts and plant mitochondria but are absent from animal mitochondrial genomes. The topology of evolution trees suggests a bacterial origin of the Tat system. In general, the twin-arginine signal peptide is capable of targeting any passenger protein to the Tat pathway. However, a structural signal carried by the mature part of a passenger protein can override targeting information in a signal peptide under certain circumstances. Tat systems show a substrate-Tat component specificity and a species specificity. The pore size of the Tat channel is estimated as being between 5 and 9 nm. Operational models of the Tat system are proposed.