Treponema pallidum is a pathogenic spirochete that has no known genetic exchange mechanisms. In order to identify treponemal genes encoding surface and secreted proteins, we carried out TnphoA mutagenesis of a T. pallidum genomic DNA library in Escherichia coli. Several of the resulting clones expressed enzymatically active T. pallidum-alkaline phosphatase fusion proteins. The DNA sequence of the 5' portion of a number of the treponemal genes was obtained and analyzed. A recombinant clone harboring plasmid p4A2 that encoded a treponemal protein with an approximate molecular mass of 50,000 Da was identified. Plasmid p4A2 contained an open reading frame of 1,251 nucleotides that resulted in a predicted protein of 417 amino acids with a calculated molecular mass of 47,582 Da. We have named this gene tpn50 in accordance with the current nomenclature for T. pallidum genes. A 1.9-kb HincII-ClaI fragment from p4A2 that contained the tpn50 gene was subcloned to produce p4A2HC2. Comparison of the predicted amino acid sequence of TpN50 with protein sequences in the National Center for Biotechnology Information data base indicated statistically significant homology to the Pseudomonas sp. OprF, E. coli OmpA, Bordetella avium OmpA, Neisseria meningitidis RmpM, Neisseria gonorrhoeae PIII, Haemophilus influenzae P6, E. coli PAL, and Legionella pneumophila PAL proteins. These proteins are all members of a family of outer membrane proteins that are present in gram-negative bacteria. The tpn50 gene complemented E. coli ompA mutations on the basis of two separate criteria. First, morphometry and electron microscopy data showed that E. coli C386 (ompA lpp) cells harboring plasmid vector pEBH21 were rounded while cells of the same strain harboring p4A2HC2 (TpN50+), pWW2200 (OprF+), or pRD87 (OmpA+) were rod shaped. Second, E. coli BRE51 (MC4100 delta sulA-ompA) cells harboring pEBH21 grew poorly at 42 degrees C in minimal medium, while the growth of BRE51 cells harboring p4A2HC2 was similar to that of the parental MC4100 cells. These results demonstrate that the TpN50 protein is functionally equivalent to the E. coli OmpA protein. If TpN50 functions in a similar fashion in T. pallidum, then it may be localized to the treponemal outer membrane.