We have developed a periplasmic fluorescent reporter protein suitable for high-throughput membrane protein topology analysis in Escherichia coli. The reporter protein consists of a single chain (scFv) antibody fragment that binds to a fluorescent hapten conjugate with high affinity Fusion of the scFv to membrane protein sites that are normally exposed in the periplasmic space tethers the scFv onto the inner membrane. Following permealization of the outer membrane to allow diffusion of the fluorescent hapten into the periplasm, binding to the anchored scFv renders the cells fluorescent. We show that cell fluorescence is an accurate and sensitive reporter of the location of residues within periplasmic loops. For topological analysis, a set of nested deletions in the membrane protein gene is employed to construct two libraries of gene fusions, one to the scFv and one to the cytoplasmic reporter green fluorescent protein (GFP). Fluorescent clones are isolated by flow cytometry and the sequence of the fusion junctions is determined to identify amino acid residues within periplasmic and cytoplasmic loops, respectively. We applied this methodology to the topology analysis of E. coli TatC protein for which previous studies had led to conflicting results. The ease of screening libraries of fusions by flow cytometry enabled the rapid identification of almost 90 highly fluorescent scFv and GFP fusions, which, in turn, allowed the fine mapping of TatC membrane topology. (C) 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.