The surface topography of a 190-residue COOH-terminal colicin E1 channel peptide (NH2-Met 333-Ile 522-COOH) bound to uniformly sized 0.2-micron liposomes was probed by accessibility of the peptide to proteases in order (1) to determine whether the channel structure contains trans-membrane segments in addition to the four alpha-helices previously identified and (2) to discriminate between different topographical possibilities for the surface-bound state. An unfolded surface-bound state is indicated by increased trypsin susceptibility of the bound peptide relative to that of the peptide in aqueous solution. The peptide is bound tightly to the membrane surface with Kd < 10(-7) M. The NH2-terminal 50 residues of the membrane-bound peptide are unbound or loosely bound as indicated by their accessibility to proteases, in contrast with the COOH-terminal 140 residues, which are almost protease inaccessible. The general protease accessibility of the NH2-terminal segment Ala 336-Lys 382 excludes any model for the closed channel state that would include trans-membrane helices on the NH2-terminal side of Lys 382. Lys 381-Lys 382 is a major site for protease cleavage of the surface-bound channel peptide. A site for proteinase K cleavage just upstream of the amphiphilic gating hairpin (K420-K461) implies the presence of a surface-exposed segment in this region. These protease accessibility data indicate that it is unlikely that there are any alpha-helices on the NH2-terminal side of the gating hairpin K420-K461 that are inserted into the membrane in the absence of a membrane potential. A model for the topography of an unfolded monomeric surface-bound intermediate of the colicin channel domain, including a trans-membrane hydrophobic helical hairpin and two or three long surface-bound helices, is proposed.