A deletion and mutagenesis study was performed on the mitochondrial presequence of the β-subunit of the F1-ATP synthase from Nicotiana plumbaginifolia linked to the green fluorescent protein (GFP). The various constructs were tested in vivo by transient expression in tobacco protoplasts. GFP distribution in transformed cells was analysed in situ by confocal microscopy, and in vitro in subcellular fractions by Western blotting. Despite its being highly conserved in different species, deletion of the C-terminal region (residues 48–54) of the presequence did not affect mitochondrial import. Deletion of the conserved residues 40–47 and the less conserved intermediate region (residues 18–39) resulted in 60% reduction in GFP import, whereas mutation of conserved residues within these regions had little effect. Further shortening of the presequence progressively reduced import, with the construct retaining the predicted N-terminal amphiphilic α-helix (residues 1–12) being unable to mediate mitochondrial import. However, point mutation showed that this last region plays an important role through its basic residues and amphiphilicity, but also through its hydrophobic residues. Replacing Arg4 and Arg5 by alanine residues and shifting the Arg5 and Leu6 (in order to disturb amphiphilicity) resulted in reduction of the presequence import efficiency. The most dramatic effects were seen with single or double mutations of the four Leu residues (positions 5, 6, 10 and 11), which resulted in marked reduction or abolition of GFP import, respectively. We conclude that the N-terminal helical structure of the presequence is necessary but not sufficient for efficient mitochondrial import, and that its hydrophobic residues play an essential role in in vivo mitochondrial targeting.