Tryptophan residues may play several roles in integral membrane proteins including direct interaction with substrates. In this work we studied the contribution of tryptophan residues to substrate binding in EmrE, a small multidrug transporter of Escherichia coli that extrudes various positively charged drugs across the plasma membrane in exchange with protons. Each of the four tryptophan residues was replaced by site-directed mutagenesis. The only single substitutions that affected the protein's activity were those in position 63. While cysteine and tyrosine replacements yielded a completely inactive protein, the replacement of Trp63 with phenylalanine brought about a protein that, although it could not confer any resistance against the toxicants tested, could bind substrate with an affinity 2 orders of magnitude lower than that of the wild-type protein. Double or multiple cysteine replacements at the other positions generate proteins that are inactive in vivo but regain their activity upon solubilization and reconstitution. The findings suggest a possible role of the tryptophan residues in folding and/or insertion. Substrate binding to the wild-type protein and to a mutant with a single tryptophan residue in position 63 induced a very substantial fluorescence quenching that is not observed in inactive mutants or chemically modified protein. The reaction is dependent on the concentration of the substrate and saturates at a concentration of 2.57 microM with the protein concentration of 5 microM supporting the contention that the functional unit is a dimer. These findings strongly suggest the existence of an interaction between Trp63 and substrate, and the nature of this interaction can now be studied in more detail with the tools developed in this work.