The mammalian bladder epithelium elaborates, as a terminal differentiation product, a specialized plasma membrane called asymmetric unit membrane (AUM) which is believed to play a role in strengthening and stabilizing the urothelial apical surface through its interactions with an underlying cytoskeleton. Previous studies indicate that the outer leaflet of AUM is composed of crystalline patches of 12-nm protein particles, and that bovine AUMs contain three major proteins: the 27- to 28-kD uroplakin I, the 15-kD uroplakin II and the 47-kD uroplakin III. As a step towards elucidating the AUM structure and function, we have cloned the cDNAs of bovine uroplakin I (UPI). Our results established the existence of two isoforms of bovine uroplakin I: a 27-kD uroplakin Ia and a 28-kD uroplakin Ib. These two glycoproteins are closely related with 39% identity in their amino acid sequences. Hydropathy plot revealed that both have four potential transmembrane domains (TMDs) with connecting loops of similar length. Proteolytic digestion of UPIa inserted in vitro into microsomal vesicles suggested that its two main hydrophilic loops are exposed to the luminal space, possibly involved in interacting with the luminal domains of other uroplakins to form the 12-nm protein particles. The larger loop connecting TMD3 and TMD4 of both UPIa and UPIb contains six highly conserved cysteine residues; at least one centrally located cysteine doublet in UPIa is involved in forming intramolecular disulfide bridges. The sequences of UPIa and UPIb (the latter is almost identical to a hypothetical, TGF beta-inducible, TI-1 protein of mink lung epithelial cells) are homologous to members of a recently described family all possessing four transmembrane domains (the "4TM family"); members of this family include many important leukocyte differentiation markers such as CD9, CD37, CD53, and CD63. The tissue-specific and differentiation-dependent expression as well as the naturally occurring crystalline state of uroplakin I molecules make them uniquely suitable, as prototype members of the 4TM family, for studying the structure and function of these integral membrane proteins.