Background: Selective protein import into the cell nucleus occurs in two steps: binding to the nuclear envelope, followed by energy-dependent transit through the nuclear pore complex. A 60 kD protein, importin, is essential for the first nuclear import step, and the small G protein Ran/TC4 is essential for the second. We have previously purified the 60 kD importin protein (importin 60) as a single polypeptide. Results We have identified importin 90, a 90 kD second subunit that dissociates from importin 60 during affinity chromatography on nickel (II)-nitrolotriacetic acid-Sepharose, a technique that was originally used to purify importin 60. Partial amino-acid sequencing of Xenopus importin 90 allowed us to clone and sequence its human homologue; the amino-acid sequence of importin 90 is strikingly conserved between the two species. We have also identified a homologous budding yeast sequence from a database entry. Importin 90 potentiates the effects of importin 60 on nuclear protein import, indicating that the importin complex is the physiological unit responsible for import. To assess whether nuclear localization sequences are recognized by cytosolic receptor proteins, a biotin-tagged conjugate of nuclear localization signals linked to bovine serum albumin was allowed to form complexes with cytosolic proteins in Xenopus egg extracts; the complexes were then retrieved with streptavidin-agarose. The pattern of bound proteins was surprisingly simple and showed only two predominant bands: those of the importin complex. We also expressed the human homologue of importin 60, Rch1p, and found that it was able to replace its Xenopus counterpart in a functional assay. We discuss the relationship of importin 60 and importin 90 to other nuclear import factors. Conclusion Importin consists of a 60 and a 90 kD subunit. Together, they constitute a cytosolic receptor for nuclear localization signals that enables import substrates to bind to the nuclear envelope.