The Tat system transports folded proteins across the bacterial cytoplasmic membrane and the thylakoid membrane of plant chloroplasts. Substrates are targeted to the Tat pathway by signal peptides containing a pair of consecutive arginine residues. The membrane proteins TatA, TatB and TatC are the essential components of this pathway in Escherichia coli. The complexes that these proteins form at native levels of expression have been investigated by the use of affinity tag-coding sequences fused to chromosomal tat genes. Distinct TatA and TatBC complexes were identified using size-exclusion chromatography and shown to have apparent molecular masses of similar to 700 and 500 kDa, respectively. Following in vivo expression, the Tat substrate protein SufI was found to copurify with the TatBC, but not the TatA, complex. This binding required the SufI signal peptide. Substitution of the twin-arginine residues in the SufI signal peptide by either twin lysine or twin alanine residues abolished export. However, both variant SufI proteins still copurified with the TatBC complex. These data show that the twin-arginine residues of the Tat consensus motif are not essential for binding of precursor to the TatBC complex but are required for the successful entry of the precursor into the transport cycle. The effect on substrate binding of single amino acid substitutions in TatC that affect Tat transport were studied using TatC variants Phe94Ala, Glu103Ala, Glu103Arg and Asp211Ala. Only variant Glu103Arg showed reduced copurification of SufI with TatBC. The transport defects associated with the other TatC variants do not, therefore, arise from an inability to bind substrate proteins.