Transporters encoded in genetic loci putP, proP and proU mediate proline and/or betaine accumulation by Escherichia coli K-12. The ProP and ProU systems are osmoregulatory. Activation of ProP in response to hyperosmotic stress has been demonstrated both in vivo and in vitro. It therefore serves as a model experimental system for the analysis of osmosensory and osmoregulatory mechanisms. We developed methodologies which will facilitate the identification of proline transporter genes by functional complementation of putP proP proU bacteria. E. coli gene proP was isolated and located within a chromosomal DNA fragment. Deletion, complementation and sequence analysis revealed putative promoter and transcription termination signals flanking a 1500 base-pair open reading frame. The predicted 55 kDa ProP protein was hydrophobic. In vitro expression of proP yielded a protein whose apparent molecular mass was determined to be 42 kDa by polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis under denaturing conditions. Database searches and cluster analysis defined relationships among the ProP sequence and those of integral membrane proteins that comprise a transporter superfamily. Members of the superfamily catalyze facilitated diffusion or ion linked transport of organic solutes in prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Multiple alignment revealed particularly close correspondence among the ProP protein, citrate transporters from E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae and an alpha-ketoglutarate transporter from E. coli. The predicted ProP sequence differed from those closely similar sequences in possessing an extended central hydrophilic loop and a carboxyl terminal extension. Unlike other protein sequences within the transporter superfamily, the carboxyl terminal extension of ProP was strongly predicted to participate in formation of an alpha-helical coiled coil. These data suggest that the ProP protein catalyzes solute-ion cotransport. Its unusual structural features may be related to osmoregulation of its activity.