MalF is an essential cytoplasmic membrane protein of the maltose transport system of Escherichia coli. We have developed a general approach for analysis of the mechanism of integration of membrane proteins and their membrane topology by characterizing a series of fusions of beta-galactosidase to MalF. The properties of the fusion proteins indicate the following. (1) The first two presumed transmembrane segments of MalF are sufficient to anchor beta-galactosidase firmly to the inner membrane. (2) Hybrid proteins with beta-galactosidase fused to a presumed cytoplasmic domain of MalF have high beta-galactosidase specific activity; fusions to periplasmic domains have low activity. We propose therefore, that periplasmic and cytoplasmic domains of integral membrane proteins can be distinguished by the enzymatic properties of such hybrid proteins. In general, it appears that cleaved or non-cleaved signal sequences when attached to beta-galactosidase cause it to become embedded in the membrane, and this results in the inability of the hybrid proteins to assemble into active enzyme. Additional properties of these fusion proteins contribute to our understanding of the regulation of MalF synthesis. The MalF protein, synthesized as part of the malEFG operon of E. coli, is approximately 30-fold less abundant in the cell than MalE protein (the maltose-binding protein). Differential amounts of the fusion proteins indicate that a regulatory signal occurs within the malF gene that is responsible for the step-down in expression from the malE gene to the malF gene.