The ability of Streptococcus mutans, a bacterial pathogen associated with dental caries, to tolerate rapid drops in plaque pH (acidurance), is considered an important virulence factor. To study this trait, Tn917 mutants of S. mutans strain JH1005 which display acid sensitivity have been isolated and partially characterized. In this paper, the characterization of one of these mutants, AS17, is reported. Preliminary sequence analysis revealed that the transposon insertion in AS17 occurred in the intergenic region of a two-gene locus which has been named sat for secretion and acid tolerance. This locus displays a high degree of homology to the ylxM-ffh operon of Bacillus subtilis. The sat+ locus was cloned by complementation of a conditional Escherichia coli ffh mutant with an S. mutans genomic library. Sequencing of the complementing clone identified the intact ylxM and ffh genes as well as a partial ORF with homology to the proUlopuAC gene of B. subtilis which encodes the binding protein of the ProU/OpuA osmoregulated glycine betaine transport system. RNA dot blot experiments indicated steady-state levels of ffh mRNA in the mutant that were approximately eightfold lower compared to parental levels. This suggests a partial polar effect of the sat-1Tn917 mutation on ffh expression. Upon acid shock (pH 5), wild-type ffh mRNA levels were found to increase approximately four- to eightfold compared to unstressed (pH 7.5) levels. Mutant levels remained unaltered under the same conditions. Experiments designed to investigate the origins of the acid-sensitivity of the mutant revealed a lack of an acid-adaptive/tolerance response. Assays of proton-extruding ATPase (H+/ATPase) specific activity measured with purified membranes derived from acid-shocked AS17 showed twofold lower levels compared to the parent strain. Also, AS17 was found to be unable to ferment sorbitol although it was able to grow in glucose and a variety of other sugar substrates. These findings suggest that Ffh may be involved in the maintenance of a functional membrane protein composition during adaptation of S. mutans to changing environmental conditions.