Magnesium chelatase catalyses the insertion of Mg2+ into protoporphyrin and is found exclusively in organisms which synthesise chlorophyll or bacteriochlorophyll. Soluble protein preparations containing >10 mg protein/ml, obtained by gentle lysis of barley plastids and Rhodobacter sphaeroplasts, inserted Mg2+ into deuteroporphyrin IX in the presence of ATP at rates of 40 and 8 pmoles/mg protein per min, respectively. With barley extracts optimal activity was observed with 40 mM Mg2+. The activity was inhibited by micromolar concentrations of chloramphenicol. Mutations in each of three genetic loci, Xantha-f, -g and -h, in barley destroyed the activity. However, Mg-chelatase activity was reconstituted in vitro by combining pairwise the plastid stroma protein preparations from non-leaky xantha-f -g and -h mutants. This establishes that, as in Rhodobacter, three proteins are required for the insertion of magnesium into protoporphyrin IX in barley. These three proteins, Xantha-F, -G and -H, are referred to as Mg-chelatase subunits and they appear to exist separate from each other in vivo. Active preparations from barley and Rhodobacter yielded pellet and supernatant fractions upon centrifugation for 90 min at 272,000 x g. The pellet and the supernatant were inactive when assayed separately, but when they were combined activity was restored. Differential distribution of the Mg-chelatase subunits in the fractions was established by in vitro complementation assays using stroma protein from the xantha-f, -g, and -h mutants. Xantha-G protein was confined to the pellet fraction, while Xantha-H was confined to the supernatant. Reconstitution assays using purified recombinant BchH, BchI and partially purified BchD revealed that the pellet fraction from Rhodobacter contained the BchD subunit. The pellet fractions from both barley and Rhodobacter contained ribosomes and had an A260:A280 ratio of 1.8. On sucrose density gradients both Xantha-G and BchD subunits migrated with the plastid and bacterial ribosomal RNA, respectively.