P-glycoprotein (Pgp), the product of the MDR1 gene, confers multidrug resistance on cancer cells by ATP-dependent extrusion of anticancer drugs. Biochemical and genetic studies with Pgp have identified the putative transmembrane (TM) region 12 (residues 974-994) as a major region involved in drug interactions with amino acid residues conserved among Pgp family members shown to be essential for transport. To determine whether nonconserved residues might be involved in substrate specificity, seven amino acid residues were identified within TM 12 that were not strictly conserved among the MDR1 and MDR2 family of proteins from different mammalian species. We replaced all seven of these amino acid residues with alanine, one at a time and in combinations, and used a vaccinia virus based transient expression system to analyze function. None of the single replacements caused any alteration in transport function. However, when residues L975, V981, and F983 were replaced collectively, drug transport, drug-stimulated ATP hydrolysis, and photoaffinity labeling with the drug analogue, [125I]iodoarylazidoprazosin (IAAP), were abrogated, with little effect on [alpha-32P]-8-azido-ATP labeling and basal ATPase activity. Pairwise alanine substitutuions showed variable effects on function. Substitutions including L975A in combination with any one of the other two replacements had the least effect on Pgp function. The V981A and F983A double mutant showed the most effect on transport of fluorescent substrates. In contrast, alanine substitutions of all four nonconserved residues M986, V988, Q990, and V991 at the putative carboxy-terminal half of TM 12 showed no effect on drug transport except for a partial reduction in bodipy-verapamil extrusion. These results suggest that nonconserved residues in the putative amino-proximal half of TM 12 of Pgp play a more direct role in determining specificity of drug transport function than those in the putative carboxy-terminal half of TM 12.