The amino-terminal sequences of several imported mitochondrial precursor proteins have been shown to contain all the information required for transport to and sorting within mitochondria. Proteins transported into the matrix contain a matrix-targeting sequence. Proteins destined for other submitochondrial compartments contain, in addition, an intramitochondrial sorting sequence. The sorting sequence in the cytochrome c1 presequence is a stop-transport sequence for the inner mitochondrial membrane. Proteins containing cleavable presequences can reach the intermembrane space by either of two pathways: (1) Part of the presequence is transported into the matrix; the attached protein, however, is transported across the outer but not the inner membrane (eg, the cytochrome c1 presequence). (2) The precursor is first transported into the matrix; part of the presequence is then removed, and the protein is reexported across the inner membrane (eg, the precursor of the iron-sulphur protein of the cytochrome bc1 complex). Matrix-targeting sequences lack primary amino acid sequence homology, but they share structural characteristics. Many DNA sequences in a genome can potentially encode a matrix-targeting sequence. These sequences become active if positioned upstream of a protein coding sequence. Artificial matrix-targeting sequences include synthetic presequences consisting of only a few different amino acids, a known amphiphilic helix found inside a cytosolic protein, and the presequence of an imported chloroplast protein. Transport of proteins across mitochrondrial membranes requires a membrane potential, ATP, and a 45-kd protein of the mitochondrial outer membrane. The ATP requirement for import is correlated with a stable structure in the imported precursor molecule. We suggest that transmembrane transport of a stably folded precursor requires an ATP-dependent unfolding of the precursor protein.