Most mitochondrial proteins are encoded in the nucleus and are translated on free cytoplasmic ribosomes as larger precursors containing amino-terminal "leader" sequences, which are removed after the precursors are taken up by mitochondria. We have deduced the complete primary structure of the precursor of a human mitochondrial matrix enzyme, ornithine transcarbamylase (OTC), from the nucleotide sequence of cloned complementary DNA. The amino-terminal leader peptide of OTC is 32 amino acids in length and contains four arginines but no acidic residues. Cleavage of the leader peptide from the "mature" protein occurs between glutamine and asparagine residues. The sequence of mature human OTC resembles that of the subunits of both OTC and aspartate transcarbamylase from Escherichia coli. The biological activity of the cloned OTC complementary DNA was tested by joining it with SV40 (an animal virus) regulatory elements and transfecting cultured HeLa cells, which do not normally express OTC. Both the precursor and mature forms of the OTC subunit were identified; in stable transformants, enzymatic activity was also detected.