Micrococcus luteus secretes a small protein called Rpf, which has autocrine and paracrine signalling functions and is required for the resuscitation of dormant cells. Originally isolated from the supernatant of actively growing cultures, Rpf was also detected on the surface of actively growing bacteria. Most molecules may be sequestered non-productively at the cell surface, as a truncated form of the protein, encompassing only the 'Rpf domain' is fully active. The C-terminal LysM module, which probably mediates binding to the cell envelope, is not required for biological activity. Rpf was essential for growth of M. luteus. Washed cells, inoculated at low density into a minimal medium, could not grow in its absence. Moreover, the incorporation of anti-Rpf antibodies into the culture medium at the time of inoculation also prevented bacterial growth. We were unable to inactivate rpf using a disrupted form of the gene, in which most of the coding sequence was replaced with a selectable thiostrepton resistance marker. Gene disruption was possible in the presence of a second, functional, plasmid-located copy of rpf, but not in the presence of a rpf derivative whose protein product lacked the secretory signal sequence. As far as we are aware, Rpf is the first example of a truly secreted protein that is essential for bacterial growth. If the Rpf-like proteins elaborated by Mycobacterium tuberculosis and other mycobacteria prove similarly essential, interference with their proper functioning may offer novel opportunities for protecting against, and treating, tuberculosis and other mycobacterial disease.