More than one-third of cellular proteomes traffic into and across membranes. Bacteria have invented several sophisticated secretion systems that guide various proteins to extracytoplasmic locations and in some cases inject them directly into hosts. Of these, the Sec system is ubiquitous, essential and by far the best understood. Secretory polypeptides are sorted from cytoplasmic ones initially due to characteristic signal peptides. Then they are targeted to the plasma membrane by chaperones/pilots. The translocase, a dynamic nanomachine, lies at the centre of this process and acts as a protein-conducting channel with a unique property; allowing both forward transfer of secretory proteins but also lateral release into the lipid bilayer with high fidelity and efficiency. This process, tightly orchestrated at the expense of energy, ensures fundamental cell processes such as membrane biogenesis, cell division, motility, nutrient uptake and environmental sensing. In the present review, we examine this fascinating process, summarizing current knowledge on the structure, function and mechanics of the Sec pathway.

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