Two polytopic membrane proteins, NarK and NarU, are assumed to transport nitrite out of the Escherichia coli cytoplasm, but how nitrate enters enteric bacteria is unknown. We report the construction and use of four isogenic strains that lack nitrate reductase Z and the periplasmic nitrate reductase, but express all combinations of narK and narU. The active site of the only functional nitrate reductase, nitrate reductase A, is located in the cytoplasm, so nitrate reduction by these four strains is totally dependent upon a mechanism for importing nitrate. These strains were exploited to determine the roles of NarK and NarU in both nitrate and nitrite transport. Single mutants that lack either NarK or NarU were competent for nitrate-dependent anaerobic growth on a non-fermentable carbon source, glycerol. They transported and reduced nitrate almost as rapidly as the parental strain. In contrast, the narK-narU double mutant was defective in nitrate-dependent growth unless nitrate transport was facilitated by the nitrate ionophore, reduced benzyl viologen (BV). It was also unable to catalyse nitrate reduction in the presence of physiological electron donors. Synthesis of active nitrate reductase A and the cytoplasmic, NADH-dependent nitrite reductase were unaffected by the narK and narU mutations. The rate of nitrite reduction catalysed by the cytoplasmic, NADH-dependent nitrite reductase by the double mutant was almost as rapid as that of the NarK+-NarU+ strain, indicating that there is a mechanism for nitrite uptake by E. coli that is in-dependent of either NarK or NarU. The nir operon encodes a soluble, cytoplasmic nitrite reductase that catalyses NADH-dependent reduction of nitrite to ammonia. One additional component that contributes to nitrite uptake was shown to be NirC, the hydrophobic product of the third gene of the nir operon, which is predicted to be a polytopic membrane protein with six membrane-spanning helices. Deletion of both NarK and NirC decreased nitrite uptake and reduction to a basal rate that was fully restored by a single chromosomal copy of either narK or nirC. A multicopy plasmid encoding NarU complemented a narK mutation for nitrite excretion, but not for nitrite uptake. We conclude that, in contrast to NirC, which transports only nitrite, NarK and NarU provide alternative mechanisms for both nitrate and nitrite transport. However, NarU might selectively promote nitrite ex-cretion, not nitrite uptake.