A hybrid precursor protein constructed by fusing the mitochondrial matrix-targeting signal of rat preornithine carbamyl transferase to murine cytosolic dihydrofolate reductase (designated pO-DHFR) was expressed in Escherichia coli. Following purification under denaturing conditions, pO-DHFR was capable of membrane translocation when diluted directly into import medium containing purified mitochondria but lacking cytosolic extracts. This import competence was lost with time, however, when the precursor was diluted and preincubated in medium lacking mitochondria, unless cytosolic proteins (provided by rabbit reticulocyte lysate) were present. Identical results were obtained for purified precursor made by in vitro translation. The ability of the cytosolic proteins to maintain the purified precursor in an import-competent state was sensitive to protease, N-ethylmaleimide (NEM), and was heat labile. Further, this activity appeared to be signal sequence dependent. ATP was not required for the maintenance of pO-DHFR competence, nor did purified 70-kDa heat shock protein (the constitutive form of Hsp70) substitute for this activity. Interestingly, however, purified Hsp70 prevented aggregation of the precursor in an ATP-dependent manner and, as well, retarded the apparent rate and extent of pO-DHFR folding. Partial purification of reticulocyte lysate proteins indicated that competence activity resides within a large mass protein fraction (200-250 kDa) that contains Hsp70. Sucrose density gradient analysis revealed that pO-DHFR reversibly interacts with components of this fraction. Pretreatment of the fraction with NEM, however, significantly stabilized the subsequent formation of a complex with the precursor. The results indicate that Hsp70 can retard precursor polypeptide folding and prevent precursor aggregation; however, by itself, Hsp70 cannot confer import competence to pO-DHFR. Maintenance of import competence correlates with interactions between the precursor and an NEM-sensitive cytosolic protein fraction. Efficient dissociation of the precursor from this complex appears to require a reactive thiol moiety on the cytosolic protein(s).