TonB protein functions as an energy transducer, coupling cytoplasmic membrane electrochemical potential to the active transport of vitamin B12 and Fe(III)-siderophore complexes across the outer membrane of Escherichia coli and other Gram-negative bacteria. Accumulated evidence indicates that TonB is anchored in the cytoplasm, but spans the periplasmic space to interact physically with outer membrane receptors. It has been presumed that this ability is caused by a conserved (Glu-Pro)n-(Lys-Pro)m repeat motif, predicted to assume a rigid, linear conformation of sufficient length to reach the outer membrane. Based on in vitro studies with synthetic peptides and purified FhuA outer membrane receptor, it has been suggested that this region contains a site that directly binds outer membrane receptors and is essential for energy transduction. We have found a TonB lacking the (Glu-Pro)n-(Lys-Pro)m repeat motif (TonB delta(66-100)). TonB delta(66-100) is fully capable of irreversible phi 80 adsorption, except under physiological circumstances where the periplasmic space is expanded. Based on the ability of TonB delta(66-100) to interact with outer membrane receptors and components of the energy transduction apparatus under normal physiological conditions, it is evident that the TonB proline-rich region has no role in energy transduction other than to provide a physical extension sufficient to reach the outer membrane.