The clathrin assembly protein complex AP-2 is a multimeric subunit complex consisting of two 100-115-kDa subunits known as alpha and beta and 50- and 16-kDa subunits. The subunits have been dissociated and separated by ion-exchange chromatography in 7.5 M urea. Fractions highly enriched in either the alpha or beta subunit were obtained. The alpha fraction interacted with clathrin as evidenced by its ability to bind to preassembled clathrin cages. It also reacted with dissociated clathrin trimers under conditions that favor assembly of coat structures, but did not yield discrete clathrin polygonal lattices. The enriched beta fraction (containing small amounts of alpha) reacted with clathrin to yield intact coats with the incorporation of approximately equivalent amounts of alpha and beta subunits into the polymerized species; excess free beta subunit was unreactive. The AP-2 complex was also completely dissociated in a highly denaturing solvent, 6 M Gdn.HCl, and the constituent subunits of 100-115, 50, and 16 kDa were separated by gel filtration. In a coassembly assay with clathrin, the clathrin polymerizing activity was exclusively associated with the 100-kDa subunit fraction with stoichiometric incorporation of both alpha and beta subunits of 100 kDa into the polymerized coats, and with no requirement for 50- or 16-kDa subunits. These observations demonstrate that the assembly activity of the complex is associated with the alpha and beta subunits and suggest that both subunits, through independent interactions with clathrin, are required for expression of complete lattice assembly activity.