To investigate in a direct way the interaction between a precursor protein and phospholipids, monolayer studies were performed using the purified precursor of Escherichia coli outer-membrane protein PhoE. It was demonstrated that prePhoE can insert efficiently into monolayers of dioleoylglycerophosphoglycerol (Ole2GroPGro) and dioleoylglycerophosphoethanolamine (Ole2GroPEtn), this insertion was mainly driven by hydrophobic forces. Compared with previous results obtained with PhoE signal peptide, the full-length precursor protein does not show the specific interaction with acidic lipids. PrePhoE inserted into a Ole2GroPGro monolayer occupies an area of 28 +/- 3 [corrected] nm2/molecule, which is approximately 10-fold larger than the area occupied by the PhoE signal peptide. The purified mature PhoE protein has a lower capacity to insert into Ole2GroPGro and Ole2GroPEtn monolayers and is, in contrast to prePhoE, fully accessible to proteinase K after interacting with a Ole2GroPGro monolayer. The results demonstrate that in the context of the precursor protein both the signal sequence and mature domain of prePhoE insert into lipid monolayers. It was found that PhoE, like prePhoE, can form in vitro a complex with the cytosolic chaperone SecB. Complexation with SecB increases the insertion of (pre)PhoE into acidic lipid monolayers. The high lipid affinity of prePhoE was also demonstrated by vesicle-binding experiments which showed that SecB dissociates from the SecB-prePhoE complex upon binding of the precursor to the bilayer. The implications of these findings for preprotein translocation are discussed and in addition some extrapolations to the insertion of PhoE into the outer membrane are made.