The presequence of the ornithine transcarbamylase precursor (pOTC) was fused to green fluorescent protein (GFP), yielding pOTC-GFP and pOTCN-GFP containing the presequence plus 4 and 58 residues of mature ornithine transcarbamylase, respectively. When GFP cDNA was transfected into COS-7 cells, the cytosol and nucleus were fluorescent. On the other hand, pOTC-GFP cDNA gave strong fluorescence of a unique mitochondrial pattern. After fractionation of cells expressing pOTC-GFP with digitonin, fluorescence was recovered mostly in the particulate fraction. Immunoblot analysis showed that processed GFP was present in the particulate fraction, whereas pOTC-GFP was recovered in both the soluble and particulate fractions. pOTC-GFP and pOTCN-GFP synthesized in vitro were imported efficiently into the isolated mitochondria. Single and triple amino acid mutations in the presequence resulted in impaired mitochondrial import and in a loss of mitochondrial fluorescence. Perinuclear aggregation of fluorescent mitochondria was observed when the human mitochondrial import receptor Tom20 (hTom20) was coexpressed with pOTC-GFP. Overexpression of hTom20 (not DeltahTom20, which lacks the anchor sequence) resulted in stimulated mitochondrial import of pOTC-GFP in COS-7 cells. When pOTC-GFP cDNA was microinjected into nuclei of human fibroblast cells, mitochondrial fluorescence was detected as early as 2-3 h after injection. These results show that GFP fusion protein can be used to visualize mitochondrial structures and to monitor mitochondrial protein import in a single cell in real time.