Assembly protein (AP) preparations from bovine brain coated vesicles have been fractionated by clathrin-Sepharose affinity chromatography. Two distinct fractions that possess coat assembly activity were obtained and are termed AP-1 and AP-2. The AP-1, not retained on the resin, has principal components with molecular weights of 108,000, 100,000, 47,000, and 19,000. The AP-2, bound to the resin and eluted by Tris-HCl at a concentration that parallels the latter's effect on coat disassembly, corresponds to the active complex described previously (Zaremba, S., and J. H. Keen, 1983, J. Cell Biol., 97:1339-1347). Its composition is similar to that of the AP-1 in that it contains 100,000-, 50,000-, and 16,000-mol-wt polypeptides in equimolar amounts; minor amounts of 112,000- and 115,000-mol-wt polypeptides are also present. Both are distinct from a recently described assembly protein of larger subunit molecular weight that we term AP-3. These results indicate the existence of a family of assembly proteins within cells. On incubation with clathrin both AP-1 and AP-2 induce the formation of coat structures, those containing AP-1 slightly smaller (mean diameter = 72 nm) than those formed in the presence of AP-2 (mean diameter = 79 nm); both structures have been detected previously in coated vesicle preparations from brain. Coats formed in the presence of AP-2 consistently contain approximately one molecule each of the 100,000-, 50,000-, and 16,000-mol-wt polypeptides per clathrin trimer. By low angle laser light scattering the molecular weight of native AP-2 was determined to be approximately 343,000, indicating that it is a dimer of each of the three subunits, and implying that it is functionally bivalent in clathrin binding. A model for AP-mediated coat assembly is proposed in which a bivalent AP-2 molecule bridges the distal legs or terminal domains of two clathrin trimers that are destined to occupy adjacent vertices in the assembled coat. Binding of a second AP-2 molecule locks these two trimers in register for assembly and further addition of AP-2 to free trimer legs promotes completion of the clathrin lattice. Effects of AP binding on the angle and flexibility of the legs at the hub of the trimer (the "pucker") are suggested to account for the characteristic size distributions of coats formed under varied conditions and, more speculatively, to contribute to the transformation of flat clathrin lattices to curved coated vesicles that are thought to occur during endocytosis.