Translocation of proteins across membranes: the signal hypothesis and beyond

Symp Soc Exp Biol. 1979:33:9-36.


Proteins are translocated across membranes either coupled to translation (co-translationally) or after translation (post-translationally). The information for both modes of translocation is encoded in the protein in the form of a short-lived sequence extension (signal sequence). Additional information resides in the ribosome in the case of co-translational translocation, which proceeds via a ribosome--membrane junction. Translocation is mediated by specific receptors (ribosome and/or signal receptors) which are restricted in their location to distinct cellular membranes. In most cases the signal sequence is removed by a signal peptidase operating in an endoproteolytic mode. Membranes endowed with receptors for co-translational translocation are: the rough endoplasmic reticulum (RER) including the outer nuclear envelope membrane, the inner mitochondrial membrane and the thylakoid membrane of chloroplasts, in eukaryotic cells; and the plasma membrane in prokaryotic cells. Each of these membranes presumably contains a single distinctive signal receptor, ribosome receptor and signal peptidase. Membranes endowed with one distinct receptor each for post-translational translocation are both mitochondrial membranes, the chloroplast envelope membrane and the peroxisomal membrane. A signal sequence for co-translational translocation across the RER membrane that is identical in its secondary structure is shared by secretory, lysosomal and certain bitopic integral membrane proteins. Some integral membrane proteins presumably share another common sequence--referred to as stop-transfer sequence--which serves to interrupt translocation and thereby to orient the polypeptide chain in the lipid bilayer. Furthermore, the existence of a few specific 'sorting' sequences is postulated. These would be common to many proteins and would serve to route them to their final destination following translocation across or orientation within the membrane. Thus, the topological information which determines the intracellular pathway and the final location of a great number of proteins appears to reside in a small repertoire of specific sequences which are either a transient or a permanent part of the protein.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteriophages
  • Binding Sites
  • Biological Evolution
  • Cytoplasm / metabolism
  • Endoplasmic Reticulum / metabolism
  • Intracellular Membranes / metabolism
  • Membrane Proteins / metabolism
  • Peptide Hydrolases / metabolism
  • Protein Biosynthesis
  • Protein Precursors / metabolism*
  • Proteins / metabolism*
  • Ribosomes / metabolism
  • Viral Proteins / metabolism


  • Membrane Proteins
  • Protein Precursors
  • Proteins
  • Viral Proteins
  • Peptide Hydrolases