Both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells contain an array of membrane transport systems maintaining the cellular homeostasis. Some of them (primary pumps) derive energy from redox reactions, ATP hydrolysis, or light absorption, whereas others (ion-coupled transporters) utilize ion electrochemical gradients for active transport. Remarkable progress has been made in understanding the molecular mechanism of coupling in some of these systems. In many cases carboxylic residues are essential for either binding or coupling. Here we suggest a model for the molecular mechanism of coupling in EmrE, an Escherichia coli 12-kDa multidrug transporter. EmrE confers resistance to a variety of toxic cations by removing them from the cell interior in exchange for two protons. EmrE has only one membrane-embedded charged residue, Glu-14, which is conserved in more than 50 homologous proteins. We have used mutagenesis and chemical modification to show that Glu-14 is part of the substrate-binding site. Its role in proton binding and translocation was shown by a study of the effect of pH on ligand binding, uptake, efflux, and exchange reactions. The studies suggest that Glu-14 is an essential part of a binding site, which is common to substrates and protons. The occupancy of this site by H(+) and substrate is mutually exclusive and provides the basis of the simplest coupling for two fluxes.