Presecretory signal peptides of 39 proteins from diverse prokaryotic and eukaryotic sources have been compared. Although varying in length and amino acid composition, the labile peptides share a hydrophobic core of approximately 12 amino acids. A positively charged residue (Lys or Arg) usually precedes the hydrophobic core. Core termination is defined by the occurrence of a charged residue, a sequence of residues which may induce a beta-turn in a polypeptide, or an interruption in potential alpha-helix or beta-extended strand structure. The hydrophobic cores contain, by weight average, 37% Leu: 15% Ala: 10% Val: 10% Phe: 7% Ile plus 21% other hydrophobic amino acids arranged in a non-random sequence. Following the hydrophobic cores (aligned by their last residue) a highly non-random and localized distribution of Ala is apparent within the initial eight positions following the core: (formula; see text) Coincident with this observation, Ala-X-Ala is the most frequent sequence preceding signal peptidase cleavage. We propose the existence of a signal peptidase recognition sequence A-X-B with the preferred cleavage site located after the sixth amino acid following the core sequence. Twenty-two of the above 27 underlined Ala residues would participate as A or B in peptidase cleavage. Position A includes the larger aliphatic amino acids, Leu, Val and Ile, as well as the residues already found at B (principally Ala, Gly and Ser). Since a preferred cleavage site can be discerned from carboxyl and not amino terminal alignment of the hydrophobic cores it is proposed that the carboxyl ends are oriented inward toward the lumen of the endoplasmic reticulum where cleavage is thought to occur. This orientation coupled with the predicted beta-turn typically found between the core and the cleavage site implies reverse hairpin insertion of the signal sequence. The structural features which we describe should help identify signal peptides and cleavage sites in presumptive amino acid sequences derived from DNA sequences.