The entire pathway of palmitate synthesis from malonyl-CoA in mammals is catalyzed by a single, homodimeric, multifunctional protein, the fatty acid synthase. Each subunit contains three N-terminal domains, the beta-ketoacyl synthase, malonyl/acetyl transferase and dehydrase separated by a structural core from four C-terminal domains, the enoyl reductase, beta-ketoacyl reductase, acyl carrier protein and thiosterase. The kinetics and specificities of the substrate loading reaction catalyzed by the malonyl/acetyl transferase, the condensation reaction catalyzed by beta-ketoacyl synthase and chain-terminating reaction catalyzed by the thioesterase ensure that intermediates do not leak off the enzyme, saturated chains exclusively are elongated and palmitate is released as the major product. Only in the fatty acid synthase dimer do the subunits adopt conformations that facilitate productive coupling of the individual reactions for fatty acid synthesis at the two acyl carrier protein centers. Introduction of a double tagging and dual affinity chromatographic procedure has permitted the engineering and isolation of heterodimeric fatty acid synthases carrying different mutations on each subunit. Characterization of these heterodimers, by activity assays and chemical cross-linking, has been exploited to map the functional topology of the protein. The results reveal that the two acyl carrier protein domains engage in substrate loading and condensation reactions catalyzed by the malonyl/acetyl transferase and beta-ketoacyl synthase domains of either subunit. In contrast, the reactions involved in processing of the beta-carbon atom, following each chain elongation step, together with the release of palmitate, are catalyzed by the cooperation of the acyl carrier protein with catalytic domains of the same subunit. These findings suggest a revised model for the fatty acid synthase in which the two polypeptides are oriented such that head-to-tail contacts are formed both between and within subunits.