In the present study we investigated the substrate-binding characteristics of three members of the 90 kDa heat shock protein (HSP90) family, namely the alpha isoform of human HSP90 (HSP90alpha), human GRP94 (94 kDa glucose-regulated protein, a form of HSP90 from endoplasmic reticulum), and HtpG (the Escherichia coli homologue of HSP90) and the domain responsible for these characteristics. The recombinant forms of HSP90alpha, GRP94 and HtpG existed as dimers and became oligomerized at higher temperatures. Among the three family members, HtpG required the highest temperature (65 degrees C) for its transition to oligomeric forms. The precipitation of the substrate protein, glutathione S-transferase, which occurred at 55 degrees C, was efficiently prevented by the simultaneous presence of a sufficient amount of HSP90alpha or GRP94, but not by HtpG, which was still present as a dimer at that temperature. However, precipitation was stopped completely at 65-70 degrees C, at which temperature HtpG was oligomerized. Thus the transition of HSP90-family proteins to a state with self-oligomerization ability is essential for preventing the precipitation of substrate proteins. We then investigated the domain responsible for the substrate binding of HtpG on the basis of the three domain structures. The self-oligomerizing and substrate-binding activities towards glutathione S-transferase and citrate synthase were both located in a single domain, the N-terminal domain (residues 1-336) of HtpG. We therefore propose that the primary peptide-binding site is located in the N-terminal domain of HSP90-family proteins.