We have analyzed how the signal sequence of prepro-alpha-factor is recognized during the first step of posttranslational protein transport into the yeast endoplasmic reticulum. Cross-linking studies indicate that the signal sequence interacts in a Kar2p- and ATP-independent reaction with Sec61p, the multispanning membrane component of the protein-conducting channel, by intercalation into transmembrane domains 2 and 7. While bound to Sec61p, the signal sequence forms a helix that is contacted on one side by Sec62p and Sec71p. The binding site is located at the interface of the protein channel and the lipid bilayer. Signal sequence recognition in cotranslational translocation in mammals appears to occur similarly. These results suggest a general mechanism by which the signal sequence could open the channel for polypeptide transport.