The Escherichia coli Tat system mediates Sec-independent export of protein precursors bearing twin-arginine signal peptides. The essential Tat pathway components TatA, TatB and TatC are shown to be integral membrane proteins. Upon removal of the predicted N-terminal transmembrane helix TatA becomes a water-soluble protein. In contrast the homologous TatB protein retains weak peripheral interactions with the cytoplasmic membrane when the analogous helix is deleted. Chemical crosslinking studies indicate that TatA forms at least homotrimers, and TatB minimally homodimers, in the native membrane environment. The presence of such homo-oligomeric interactions is supported by size exclusion chromatography. (C) 2001 Federation of European Biochemical Societies. Published by Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.