Expression of ornithine transcarbamylase (OTC), a nuclear-coded mitochondrial enzyme, was programmed in HeLa cells by the use of a strategy of gene co-amplification. HeLa cells, ordinarily devoid of OTC activity, were transfected with a plasmid containing viral regulatory elements joined with two cDNA sequences, one encoding the human OTC precursor and a second encoding a mutant mouse dihydrofolate reductase. After transfection and selection in increasing concentrations of methotrexate, several hundred copies per cell of the sequence encoding OTC were detected by blot analysis. Immunoprecipitation of extracts of radiolabeled cells with anti-OTC antiserum revealed newly synthesized mature OTC subunits. Furthermore, OTC enzymatic activity in cell extracts was comparable to that of control human liver, and mitochondrial localization of OTC was demonstrated by immunofluorescence. When we incubated transfected HeLa cells with dinitrophenol, a known inhibitor of mitochondrial import, the only form of newly synthesized OTC detected was the precursor. We estimated the rate of import of precursor by performing an inhibitor-free chase; precursor was converted to mature subunit with a half-life of less than two minutes. When a HeLa transformant was incubated with the arginine analogue canavanine, the major form of newly synthesized OTC detected was a species migrating slightly more slowly than the normal precursor; little mature-sized subunit was recovered. This indicates that substitution of the analogue for arginine in the OTC precursor interferes with mitochondrial import and processing. Thus, arginine residues in the OTC precursor--most likely the four residues contained in its NH2-terminal leader sequence--probably play an important role in mitochondrial import and/or processing.