The predicted amino acid sequence of the alpha subunit of the rat liver mitochondrial ATP synthase has been obtained by sequencing a cDNA for the alpha subunit. Analysis of the sequence shows that it contains the A and B consensus sequences found in many nucleotide-binding proteins. Twelve amino acids of the rat liver alpha subunit differ from the sequence of the bovine heart alpha subunit; four of these involve differences in charge. The rat liver alpha subunit, from arginine 15 to the C-terminal proline 510, has been overexpressed in Escherichia coli using the alkaline phosphatase promoter (phoA) and leader peptide to direct the export of the expressed protein to the bacterial periplasm. By treating the cells with lysozyme, osmotic shock, and alkaline pH washes, the alpha subunit can be extracted in high yield (greater than 25 mg/liter) and in a high state of purity. The expressed alpha subunit remains soluble at pH 9.5 or greater and precipitates when treated with Mg2+ ions at low millimolar concentration. The bacterially expressed alpha subunit interacts with 2'(3')-O-(2,4,6-trinitrophenyl)adenosine 5'-triphosphate (TNP-ATP), resulting in a marked fluorescence enhancement upon binding. An enhancement of fluorescence is also observed upon the interaction of the alpha subunit with TNP-ADP. Preincubating the alpha subunit with 1.5 mM ATP significantly reduces the fluorescence enhancement seen with TNP-ATP. The alpha subunit binds TNP-ATP with an apparent Kd in the low micromolar range (1-5 microM) and binds TNP-ADP with an affinity at least 10-fold lower. This work shows that the rat liver alpha subunit can be overexpressed in E. coli to yield a large amount of functional protein. With the acquisition of the overexpressed alpha subunit, it is now possible to test the reconstitution of ATPase activity from a mixture of recombinant and rat liver-derived subunits and to test the formation of complexes by the overexpressed alpha and beta subunits of the rat liver F1-ATPase.