Yeast Mas70p and NADH cytochrome b5 reductase are bitopic integral proteins of the mitochondrial outer membrane and are inserted into the lipid-bilayer in an Nin-Ccyto orientation via an NH2-terminal signal-anchor sequence. The signal anchor of both proteins is comprised of a short, positively charged domain followed by the predicted transmembrane segment. The positively charged domain is capable of functioning independently as a matrix-targeting signal in yeast mitochondria in vitro but does not support import into mammalian mitochondria (rat or human). Rather, this domain represents a cryptic signal that can direct import into mammalian mitochondria only if proximal components of the outer membrane import machinery are removed. This can be accomplished either by treating the surface of the intact mitochondria with trypsin or by generating mitoplasts. The import receptor Tom20p (Mas20p/MOM19) is responsible for excluding the cryptic matrix-targeting signal from mammalian mitochondria since replacement of yeast Tom20p with the human receptor confers this property to the yeast organelle while at the same time maintaining import of other proteins. In addition to contributing to positive recognition of precursor proteins, therefore, the results suggest that hTom20p may also have the ability to screen potential matrix-targeting sequences and exclude certain proteins that would otherwise be recognized and imported by distal components of the outer and inner membrane protein-translocation machinery. These findings also indicate, however, that cryptic signals, if they exist within otherwise native precursor proteins, may remain topogenically silent until the precursor successfully clears hTom20p, at which time the activity of the cryptic signal is manifested and can contribute to subsequent translocation and sorting of the polypeptide.