PcaK is a transporter and chemoreceptor protein from Pseudomonas putida that is encoded as part of the beta-ketoadipate pathway regulon for aromatic acid degradation. When expressed in Escherichia coli, PcaK was localized to the membrane and catalyzed the accumulation of two aromatic substrates, 4-hydroxybenzoate and protocatechuate, against a concentration gradient. Benzoate inhibited 4-hydroxybenzoate uptake but was not a substrate for PcaK-catalyzed transport. A P. putida pcaK mutant was defective in its ability to accumulate micromolar amounts of 4-hydroxybenzoate and protocatechuate. The mutant was also impaired in growth on millimolar concentrations of these aromatic acids. In contrast, the pcaK mutant grew at wild-type rates on benzoate. The Vmax for uptake of 4-hydroxybenzoate was at least 25 nmol/min/mg of protein, and the Km was 6 microM. PcaK-mediated transport is energized by the proton motive force. These results show that although aromatic acids in the undissociated (uncharged) form can diffuse across bacterial membranes, high-specificity active transport systems probably also contribute to the ability of bacteria to grow on the micromolar concentrations of these compounds that are typically present in soil. A variety of aromatic molecules, including naturally occurring lignin derivatives and xenobiotics, are metabolized by bacteria and may be substrates for transport proteins. The characterization of PcaK provides a foundation for understanding active transport as a critical step in the metabolism of aromatic carbon sources.